Work Begins on Art Garden to Recognize Legendary Lexington Jockey

Jul 14, 2014

Credit Stu Johnson / Weku radio


After years of planning, Lexington's best Thoroughbred jockey is being honored with a downtown art garden.  One speaker at Monday's groundbreaking called the late Isaac Murphy the "Lebron James of his time."

Government officials, activists from the east end neighborhood and children on horseback gathered at the corner of Third Street and Midland Avenue for yesterday's ceremony. It began with a slight shower but ended in brilliant sunshine.  A little rain wasn't gonna dampen the spirits of Thomas Tolliver, Vice President of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden Board.  "We've persevered this long and we're gonna keep persevering and we'll just stand here in the rain, if we have to," said Tolliver.

Tolliver called the event yesterday a long time coming.  The art garden is the first effort to honor who many consider the best thoroughbred jockey ever.  Isaac Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. He did it in 1884, 1890, and again in 1891.  Murphy won more than a third of his mounts.  The Lexingtonian died of pneumonia at the age of 34. 

Tolliver says Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker once compared Murphy to another well-known African American athlete from Kentucky.  "He said Isaac Murphy is to Lexington what Muhammed Ali is to Louisville," added Tolliver.

Murphy's remains have been moved twice.  First interred in African American Cemetery Number two in downtown Lexington, his body was moved to the old Man o'War burial site.  A decade later the jockey's remains and those of the legendary horse were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park where they rest today.  Warren Rodgers, of the well-known utility construction firm which bears his name, was among those handling the bones of Murphy and Man O War in the 1970's.  Rodgers says the experience peaked his interest in the Lexington jockey and in his impact on the racing profession.  "Back in the day, jockeys just got on the horse and held on and whoever won, won.  But, he was smarter than that.  He was a tactician.  He knew how to rate a horse.  He knew how to pull the reins back on a horse, save his energy for that big stretch run, and he would come in and finish, usually winning," said Rodgers.

Rodgers says that's what jockeys do today in every race.

A mix of federal, state, local and philanthropic dollars is funding the 700 thousand dollar project.  Blue Grass Community Foundation is leading ongoing fundraising efforts for the garden.  Foundation C-E-O Lisa Adkins says the arts focus will also be a continuing commitment.  "While the park is fully funded and we're really excited about that, a key part of the name is art garden.  It's the Isaac Murphy Art Garden and there is still great opportunity to participate in the charitable part of this wonderful memorial garden, and that is the art," explained Adkins.

Jim Embry has been a part of the project from the beginning.  Embry says a site along Sixth and Limestone was first considered for the art garden.  That fell through and the location at Third and Midland was chosen. It was later, Embry says that project planners realized Murphy's house once sat on that site.  "That kind of guidance, spiritual guidance, that guides you somewhere else you know, It will close one door to open up other doors," said Embry.

The Art Garden will include seats of native stone, native plants, a sunken amphitheater and bike racks.  Visitors will be able to see the foundation of Isaac Murphy's house.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray noted during the ceremony the garden will also serve as the official starting point of the city's Legacy Trail.  "As a trail head for the legacy trail, the Isaac Murphy garden will connect the East End with the Kentucky Horse Park, where Isaac Murphy is buried," said Embry.

Construction of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.​