SportsRace to the Derby


Lexington's Lyric Theatre to portray a horse racing legend

Posted at 6:51 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 18:56:36-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Isaac Murphy is one of the most prolific jockeys in horse racing history.

The son of a former slave, he rose to fame when the sport was dominated by Black jockeys, a reign that ended mostly due to discrimination and Jim Crow laws. In a collection of poems, Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker helped bring Murphy's triumphs and tragedies to light in paperback. Now, there's a short film that brings Murphy to life.

Portraying the legendary jockey is Whit Whitaker, executive director of Lexington's Lyric Theatre. The theatre is located along the Legacy Trail, just down the street from Murphy's former home.

"A lot of people aren't aware of his moral character that he stood by," said Whitaker.

Whitaker says the Kentuckian endured extreme physical challenges while dominating the sport.

"With each year, it gets harder to make weight, so he experienced bulimia a lot, starving himself," said Whitaker.

Murphy won more than a third of his races, including three Kentucky Derbys. But just five years after his final triumph at Churchill Downs, he died at the age of 35.

"With all his successes, he died a very young man," said Whitaker. "Today's horse racing industry owes a lot to Isaac Murphy and jockeys like him. Especially marginalized jockeys, African-American jockeys, who paved the way."

A life of tragedy and triumph whose character stood tall in the face of hate.

"It's a shame that during that time, given the Jim Crow, the racial situation, that he could not be celebrated and given his just due when he was alive," said Whitaker.

If you'd like to see Whitaker's portrayal of Isaac Murphy, you can purchase a ticket for a virtual showing of "I Dedicate This Ride" on the Lexington Children's Theatre's website. The show streams on Friday.