Kentucky voices: Black History Month valentine to racing legend

Isaac Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884 on Buchannan in 1890 on Riley, and in 1891 on Kingman. He is buried at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Isaac Murphy won the Kentucky Derby in 1884 on Buchannan in 1890 on Riley, and in 1891 on Kingman. He is buried at the Kentucky Horse Park.

It's February, and I ought to be shopping for a Valentine for my husband. Instead, I find myself wanting to send a message to a man who died in Lexington 115 years ago this month.

He was black, and I am white. He was a born a slave; I was born free. He became a celebrity, earning headlines in New York newspapers. I have managed a few mentions in my town's small daily paper. Isaac Murphy had a life that was totally different from mine. That's the reason he could become my ideal teacher.

It was February of 1995 when the Herald-Leader ran a very brief article about him. I read it once and was desperate to know more. The article contained a grand total of four sentences, buried in a column in the sports section.

The facts were clearly stated: Murphy had been the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. And yet, 100 years later, he was mostly forgotten. A track in Florida had decided to name a race in his honor.

Holding that tiny news clipping in my hand, I was overwhelmed by a burning question: How could a person accomplish something so extraordinary and then disappear for decades on end?

The question propelled me to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum and the library at Keeneland. At first, I just wanted to know Murphy's story and understand why he had been cheated of lasting fame.

But it turned out there was no way to answer the personal question without coming to terms with something larger.

Murphy served as my teacher as I tried to understand the great — and terrible — forces in American history that could turn a slave into a hero and then send him, broken-hearted, back toward oblivion.

Which brings me to that thank-you note I'd like to send him during this chilly February that is Black History Month.

When I was in school, I liked studying history and was fortunate to have exceptional teachers. But not even the best of those teachers had the power to make me really feel our nation's history.

Grief and hardship during the Civil War came alive for me only when I learned about the travails of Murphy and his mother. The sudden appearance of black achievers after the war seemed much more exciting because Murphy was there in the thick of things, enjoying newfound freedom. The violent backlash and resistance that arose from disgruntled whites in the 1890s felt like a personal affront because it helped end Murphy's career — and probably his life.

With no teacher to give me credit (and no certainty that any publisher would ever care about the book I hoped to write), I found myself willing to slog through stacks of books and old newspapers.

Murphy became my mentor and perhaps my obsession. During one return trip to the Kentucky Derby Museum, I bought a decorative magnet that depicted an old sports trading card bearing Murphy's photo.

After the magnet had been on our refrigerator for several days, I told my husband that sometimes I felt as if Murphy were keeping an eye on me. The next morning I discovered a "speech bubble" taped beside Murphy's head with a pointed question: "Hey, Patsi, have you written that book about me yet?"

Eventually I did finish the book, and I was careful to thank my husband and my daughters for putting up with my research obsession that lasted several years.

But in this particular year (when Murphy would have celebrated his 150th birthday) and this particular month (the 115th anniversary of his death), I want to thank him. He's been a teacher, an inspiration and maybe even a friend. His picture still clings to my refrigerator.