Merlene Davis: Bring your shovel to the Isaac Murphy Art Garden

In 2006, when community organizers selected the half-acre plot of land on East Third Street near Midland Avenue for the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, they thought it was near where the famous jockey once lived.

Now, however, thanks to the work of Pamela Brinegar, a Lexington certified genealogist, board members think it might be exactly where Murphy's house stood.

"It's extraordinarily providential," said David Cozart, president of the garden board.

Brinegar was researching African-American women, particularly Murphy's relatives, and discovered the location, Cozart said. She presented her findings to the board, which was ambivalent about them because they feared archeological and historic investigations would slow the long delayed project, he said.

But they knew what had to be done.

"We couldn't just glaze over this," he said. "We had to honor this providential aspect."

There was not enough evidence from Brinegar's study or one conducted by the state Transportation Cabinet to have the site placed on a historic preservation list. However, there will be an archeological dig to locate the house's foundation, he said.

'We may not find anything that leads us to the life of Isaac Murphy," Cozart said. "It may just be the house foundation. But if we do find something, we can incorporate that into the design of the park."

Excavation starts Tuesday, Cozart said. An area will be fenced off for community participation from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday. So grab a shovel and come dust off a spot or wash off a treasure Saturday when the park will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Murphy's birth.

Considered one of the greatest riders in history, Murphy was born Isaac Burns in Bourbon County in 1861. After his father died, the family moved to Lexington to live with his grandfather Green Murphy.

When he became at jockey at age 14, Isaac Burns changed his last name to Murphy to honor his grandfather. Murphy became the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys, in 1884, 1890 and 1891.

Murphy is also the only jockey to have won the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and the Clark Handicap in the same year, 1884. He had a 44 percent victory rate for his starts, which has never been surpassed.

The two-story home he bought and lived in had a clear view of the racetrack run by the Kentucky Association for the Improvement of the Breeds of Stock that once was where the 80-acre Bluegrass- Aspendale neighborhood stood. It operated long before Keeneland Race Course was built.

Murphy died of pneumonia in 1896. His remains were moved twice after burial and now rest at the Kentucky Horse Park, next to Man o' War.

Saturday, children will participate in stick-horse races, crafts and other festivities at the art garden site.

On May 18 and 19, schoolchildren will visit the site and help with the dig, Cozart said.

About 90 percent of the money needed for construction of the art garden has been raised, he said, thanks to the Bluegrass Foundation and other partners. An additional $100,000 is needed.

The park not only will honor Murphy, it will honor other African-Americans who contributed to Thoroughbred racing.

The park's official ground-breaking will be sometime this summer, Cozart said.

For more information on the dig, call Steve at (859) 225-3343.