In 1968 Penny Anne Early became one of the first licensed female horse racing jockey's in the United States, she wanted to be the first female to be a jockey at Churchill downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. she entered into three races, but the other Jockey's boycotted the races. She did eventually race at Churchill, however, and won a race.
Early was attempting to become the first female jockey to race in a race. She became the second female to be certified after Barbara Jo Rubin was certified days before Early. Early was slated to become the first female jockey to race, but because of the boycotts at Churchill Downs, her races were cancelled. Rubin would get the honor of becoming the first female jockey months before Early raced her first race.
Early would become the first female Jockey to win a race when in 1969 she won at Suffolk Downs.
Early's attempts to join horse racing came at a time when many women in the United States were pushing for more equal rights, and she was seen as a pioneer in her endeavors to join the horse racing circut.
During the height of the contravery at Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Colonels signed the 110 pound, 5'3", 23 year old Early to a contract in 1968. Colonels head coach Gene Rhodes was not happy, and was not going to play Early, but Colonels management forced him to not only keep her on the roster, but play her in a real game.
On November 28, 1968, the Colonles where playing the Los Angeles Stars, and early in the first quarter Rhodes put Early in the game. Early wore the number 3 to symbolize the number of races that other jockey's had boycotted. She inbounded the ball to a wide open teammate, Bobby Rascoe, then Rascoe immediately called a timeout and the Colonels removed Early from the game to a rousing standing ovation.
After the game was over Early signed hundred of Autographs, but never would again play professional basketball again.
The Colonels would release Early after the game and she went back to horse racing.
She raced in 13 races, but only one the single race at Suffolk Downs. She did place and show in 2 other races. She had issues maintaining weight and retired in 1974. She attempted to make a comeback a few months later but suffered multiple injuries when the horse she was riding fell. She retired for good and as of 2020 was still a horse training spending time between California and Tennessee.
Early's attempts to become a mainstream athlete in both horse racing and basketball encouraged more women to push for better treatment and equality in not just sports but society as well. Early was an outspoken advocate of Title IX legislation when it was passed in 1972, giving female athletes access to the same programs as male athletes.
At 5'3" she was the shortest player in professional basketball history until 1987 when Tyrone Bogues joined the NBA. Her weight at just 112 pounds makes her the lightest player in ABA or NBA history. Her short stature would also make her one of the smallest players in the WNBA. Though 10 players 5'3" or shorter have played in the WNBA as of 2022, and 3 players weighing less than 112 pounds have also played.