Less than two weeks before Victor Espinoza tries to guide California Chrome to a Triple Crown-clinching victory in horse racing’s Belmont Stakes, Emory University professor Pellom McDaniels III looks back at a man who, more than a century earlier, set the standard of excellence for all jockeys. Isaac Burns Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, and his 44 percent overall win rate — nearly three times higher than Espinoza’s — remains unmatched. He was the highest-paid U.S. athlete of his time. And he happened to be African American.
McDaniels, a former Kansas City Chiefs lineman who now is faculty curator of African American collections at Emory, discusses his new biography of Murphy, whose life spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the adoption of Jim Crow legislation. Before dying in 1896 at age 34, Murphy became an important figure not only in sports but also in the social, political, and cultural consciousness of African Americans.