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An Excerpt From 'Race Horse Men'

This excerpt appears in Katherine Mooney's Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack. Click here for our interview with the author.


T. Thomas Fortune seldom had time to go to the racetrack. Editor of the New York Age and a vociferous voice for black rights, Fortune gloried in the epithet “Afro-American agitator.” He insisted on the necessity of political relentlessness, the indispensable importance of daily demonstrations of black dignity. In the summer of 1890, Fortune and his friend and attorney T. McCants Stewart were especially busy. That June, Fortune had entered a segregated New York hotel bar, asked to be served, and, when he was refused, sat in the bar until he was arrested. Represented by Stewart, he had sued the hotel, demanding equal access to public accommodations, and chronicled his case in his paper for a national audience. The two men would ultimately secure a favorable verdict and damages from the New York State Supreme Court, helping to pioneer legal and publicity strategies later used by generations of civil rights activists.

Busy as they were, Fortune and Stewart made a point of going to the track a month after Fortune’s arrest to see a match race that transfixed the whole nation. Most of the crowd was fascinated with Salvator, the favorite of the day, who had already racked up great victories, including that year’s Suburban Handicap. Born in 1886, Salvator was the son of imported stallion Prince Charlie. But from his mother, a daughter of Lexington, he had inherited the royal blood of nineteenth-century American racing. A gleaming chestnut with a grim love for a hard-fought victory, Salvator was the cherished project of his trainer Matt Byrnes, who pointed out the horse’s muscular jaw to reporters. “Oh, he’s a bull dog,” he told them affectionately. “It’s his nature and his jaw shows it. James Ben Ali Haggin, the horse’s owner, had made a fortune in the gold rush, building a mining and real estate empire in California, where he located his 45,000-acre Rancho Del Paso Thoroughbred farm near Sacramento. Many racing men already considered Salvator the dominant runner of his time. But one man was not convinced. J. T. Pulsifier, the owner of the impressive Tenny, thought his four year old, who had finished third in the Suburban, could beat the flashy chestnut. Pulsifier challenged Haggin to a match race. A huge crowd turned out to see the contest at the Sheepshead Bay track, thronging into the grandstand and the infield, fighting for a view of the runners.

Fortune and Stewart had not come to see a horse, however famous. They wanted to see Salvator’s jockey, a man at the apogee of his career. In 1890, Isaac Murphy was on the brink of thirty and already a legend. In the course of his career, Murphy’s mounts won 44 percent of their races, still an unparalleled record. Racing men of the 1880s turned to the great jockeys of the past to find a rider like him. The elderly Gilpatrick, decades after riding Lexington, saw Murphy take the notoriously stubborn Checkmate over a mile and three furlongs under a heavier weight than any of his competitors and win easily. One of the reporters at the rail spotted the old man, “and the look he gave Murphy as the latter dismounted spoke of a mind which, running far back down into the valley of time, was conjuring the shades of Abe and many of the old school of colored riders.” The immense crowd on the day of the match race, Fortune noted, included a large number of blacks, who had come to see the jockey and his mount. Women trained in a lifetime of decorum screamed and applauded as Murphy and Salvator took the track. The crowd roared again at the appearance of Tenny, ridden by the famous white jockey Snapper Garrison, equally well known for his bristling mustache and his panache in a close finish.

At the start, Murphy eased Salvator into the lead, letting the horse’s tremendous strides gradually widen the distance between the two. The horses ran the quarter mile in twenty-five seconds, and then Salvator increased the pace, ticking off the half in a little over forty-nine seconds. Records fell one after another, as the two went the mile at the same clip. Tenny began to tire, and Salvator, now two lengths ahead, cut to the rail to save ground, looking like an easy winner. With only an eighth of a mile to go, Garrison urged his horse forward with “cyclonic fury,” and Tenny bravely rushed the last hundred yards, coming up to challenge the leader. Murphy, as was his habit, had ridden the entire race using only the subtlest of signals, gently coaxing his horse to immense speed. Now he went to the whip, and Salvator barely held off his charging rival as the two horses went under the wire. It was, the Spirit of the Times recorded simply, “a race such as but very few if any of us had seen before and none of us may ever see again.”

After the race, Stewart introduced the thrilled Fortune to Murphy and his wife. At first, Fortune felt uncomfortably self-conscious about being a racetrack novice, but Murphy’s soft-spoken and impeccable courtesy assuaged his uneasiness. Soon Fortune was asking probing questions with the zeal of a veteran reporter. Was it true that the jockey enjoyed cutting his margin of victory dangerously fine? Murphy looked at Fortune for a moment in silence, then broke into a smile and said four words. “I ride to win.” For an instant, Murphy’s steely determination flashed, and Fortune recognized a black man at the top of his profession, revealing himself to an equal. That kind of unflinching pursuit of excellence, that refusal to accept less, Fortune saw as integral to the struggle for full black citizenship. Accomplishments like Murphy’s, Fortune hoped, could “make men lose, in measure, whatever they may possess of color prejudice.”

Fortune’s hopes seemed justified that summer. The victory set off a public frenzy of adulation for both horse and rider. The prolific poetess Ella Wheeler Wilcox turned her well-documented facility for rhyme to the subject in a poem penned for the Spirit of the Times. Wilcox, a formidable literary comfort to millions of Victorian Americans, chose to adopt Murphy’s perspective on the contest, chronicling the memories she imagined of the moment he and Salvator took the track. “The gate was thrown open, I rode out alone. / More proud than a monarch who sits on a throne. / I am but a jockey, but shout upon shout / Went up from the people who watched me ride out.” No one found it disturbing that Wheeler adopted a black man’s voice in the periods of her strictly regimented verse. Nor did anyone suggest that depicting Murphy in such regal terms was inappropriate. Other writers would shortly do the same.

Only a few weeks later, Tenny and Salvator met again in the Champion Stakes. This time, Murphy let Garrison and Tenny take the lead and waited out his opponent. As the finish line approached, he turned Salvator loose, and the two came home in a canter ahead of the laboring Tenny. The easy victory confirmed Salvator’s superiority beyond a doubt. Murphy had asked just enough of him to demonstrate his greatness, riding with exact timing. He had already had a chance to exercise his skills earlier in the day, when he took the Junior Champion Stakes with Strathmeath, coming from behind to best the leaders of a chaotic field of eighteen two year olds by a nose in a widely applauded display of horsemanship. He was grinning from ear to ear as he went to the winner’s circle with Salvator, the Spirit of the Times reported, and it was no wonder: “He had won the Junior Champion and the Champion Stakes, but above all he had ridden the best horse of the decade, if not the century, on the American turf, in the race which was the supreme climax of a grand career.” The Brooklyn Eagle did not hesitate to call Salvator “the king of the turf.” Track crowds surrounded him, trying to touch him. And if the horse were the king of racing, “Isaac Murphy is the prince of jockeys.”

After the victory, Salvator’s trainer Matt Byrnes invited James Ben Ali Haggin, Murphy, and “half the judicial and political ‘somebodies’ of New York” to a celebratory clambake. Champagne flowed freely, the politicians made speeches, and the stage star DeWolf Hopper performed his famous recitation of “Casey at the Bat.” Several of the party guests posed for pictures against a fence, displaying their finery. Isaac Murphy, dressed in a frock coat, his bowler hat conservatively straight over his eyes, his walking stick held at a precisely casual angle against his light trousers, lounged carefully, his hand on the shoulder of the white man next to him. He was the only black man in the group.

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