In 2022 more than a quarter of all jockeys—27.2 percent—were female. That is only true because of the pioneering women of the late 1960s who fought for the right to compete.
In its Dec. 13, 1968 issue LIFE wrote about Penny Ann Early and her battle to break the gender barrier in horse racing. At age 25 she was one of the first women to become a licensed jockey in the U.S. (The first was 1968 Olympic equestrian star Kathryn Kusner, who sued for that right but then suffered a broken leg before she could attempt to race). Early’s battle to get on the track was chronicled for LIFE by photographer Bob Gomel.
When Penny Ann Early attempted to compete at Churchill Downs, male jockeys were so opposed that they boycotted the races she was set to appear in. One male jockey cast the boycott as defending his livelihood. “If you let one woman ride one race, we are all dead,” he told LIFE.
Early told LIFE, “I have nothing against men. Next to horses I like men best. All I want is a chance to race against them. Is that so bad?”
Apparently it was. That issue of LIFE included a startlingly brazen guest editorial from Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack. He acknowledged that women had a legal right to ride and criticized the boycotts of Early as a misguided tactic. But Hartack also predicted that once women had the chance to compete, they would fail.
“They’ll find out how tough it is and they’ll give it up. The tracks won’t have to worry about being flooded with women because a female cannot compete against a male doing anything….They might weigh the same as male jockeys, but they aren’t as strong. And as a group, I don’t think their brains are as capable of making fast decisions. Women are also more likely to panic. It’s their nature.”
Hartrack also dreamed up a scenario where women might use sex to get male jockeys to take it easy on them in a race. “If she was sharp enough I might take advantage of the situation myself,” Hartack wrote. “I wouldn’t ease up in the race, but I wouldn’t put it past me to con her into thinking that I would.”
While Early was ultimately unsuccessful in her attempts to break the gender barrier at the track, she did compete against men in another professional sport: basketball. Her battles at Churchill Downs caught the attention of the Kentucky Colonels of the fledging American Basketball Association, and the Colonels signed her to a one-day contract. She checked into a game long enough to receive an inbounds pass while wearing a sweater with the number 3, representing the number of times that male jockeys had boycotted her races.
But it didn’t take long until the gender barrier was broken—by Diane Crump, racing at another track. On February 7, 1969, became the first women to compete in a pari-mutuel race, at Hialeah Park Race Track in Florida, with LIFE photographer George Silk on hand. Her appearance was controversial enough that she needed police protection from the crowd before the race.
Crump finished ninth at Hialeah. Two weeks later she won her first race, and in 1970 she competed in the Kentucky Derby. And she and Early helped clear the path for other groundbreaking jockeys such as Julie Krone, who in 1993 became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race, atop Colonial Affair in the Belmont Stakes.
In an interview with CNN in 2012, Crump modestly said, “I like to think I was a little inroad on the path to equality.”