When Emory University professor Pellom McDaniels came to Lexington in 2015 to lecture at Keeneland Library and promote his new book Prince of Jockeys, the Life of Isaac Burns Murphy, he unknowingly set in motion a series of conversations that culminated with the creation of a grassroots advocacy group called Phoenix Rising Lex.
While Prince of Jockeys is a detailed accounting of the life of Isaac Murphy growing into manhood in post-Civil War Lexington, and going on to become the best known athlete in America, it also discusses the many black jockeys and trainers from the late 19th century, the majority of whom were from the Bluegrass, who went on to fame. This raised a recurring question: What about all the other Black jockeys and horsemen whose stories had never been told? Aren’t they also deserving of recognition?
Enter Phoenix Rising Lex, a group of like-minded citizens who felt that successful Black horsemen have not gotten the credit they deserved. Phoenix Rising Lex formed with the simple mission to uncover the stories of Kentucky’s Black horsemen and make those stories known and accessible. In its three years of existence, Phoenix Rising Lex has hosted numerous events where Black horsemen, living and dead, have been celebrated.
For instance, in 2017, when the equine world celebrated the 100th birthday of the legendary Man o’ War, focusing largely on his remarkable racing career, Phoenix Rising Lex decided to honor two of Man o’ War’s African American grooms, Will Harbut and Cunningham Graves. As part of its celebration, Phoenix Rising Lex re-produced as a souvenir the iconic 1941 cover of the Saturday Evening Post which featured
Harbut and Man o’ War in a gentle snuggle. It marked the first time a horse had been on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and no doubt paid a rare honor for a Black man too.
“Our aim is to research and honor all black horsemen, not just jockeys,” said Phoenix Rising Lex President, Bill Cooke, who recently retired after four decades as director of the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park. “It’s true that jockeys and trainers garner the most attention, but there are African American owners, farriers, grooms and others who played important roles in horse racing that have never gotten their rightful recognition.”
Phoenix Rising Lex’s effort to uncover and highlight this bit of racing’s lost history has not gone unnoticed. In June 2018, Phoenix Rising Lex was the recipient of the Community Preservation Award given by the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation.