Jeff Penza – a jockey with a passion for Jumping
Above: Jeff Penza and Fireball at the 2020 Waratah Showjumping
Participants in the sport of Jumping come to the sport from a variety of backgrounds and with differing levels of riding experience. Some start out jumping as youngsters and others start competing a bit later in life. Some come to the sport with a background that is steeped in horses and others have little or no experience when they take it up.
Australian Jumping recently caught up with a man, who, whilst relatively new to the sport of Jumping, has over three decades of experience as one of Australia’s most hard working and successful jockeys. That man is Jeff Penza.
Jeff rode his first winner back in 1987 and since then, the success has flowed. He had a short stint riding in the UK in 1993, and since then has established a career as one of the most consistent and popular jockeys on the NSW provincial circuit.
Between 2008 and 2018, Jeff rode over 1000 winners and with 136 wins in 2016/17 season he won more races than any other jockey in NSW. A prolific competitor, (in the 2017/18 season, he had more race rides than any other jockey in Australia), he often travels thousands of kilometers each week. In one week in December 2020, Jeff rode at Canberra, Orange, Wyong, Goulburn, Newcastle, Moruya and Scone.
Jeff competes in Jumping with a couple of off-the-track Thoroughbreds, one of which he also rode to success on the track. Fireball is a 12-year-old gelding who raced 55 times for 7 wins and 15 placings, winning over $228,000 in prizemoney. Jeff rode him four times in his career, including Fireball’s first race start in 2011. The pair were victorious on two occasions, both at Muswellbrook in country NSW, and their other effort together resulted in a sixth placing at Sydney’s Warwick Farm.
His other competition horse, Eli Lamar, which raced as Stromaise, is an 11-year-old gelding which had 24 race starts for just the two wins at Scone and Tamworth, accruing more than $28,000 in prizemoney. Jeff rode him in two races, recording a third at Mudgee and eleventh at Kembla in what was his last race.
His is a great story, so over to you Jeff:
When did you take up jumping? My wife Michelle and I have two retired racehorses at home. I became bored just riding around the paddock on them, so I started jumping them. This would have been around early 2016. I had my first go at competing at the 2017 Hawkesbury show on Eli.
What is its attraction to you? I found it interesting teaching my horse to jump and was attracted to the thrill of jumping higher as we both improved. I found the sport to have many variables such as different courses and locations which provide plenty of challenges. It also makes you think about how you ride, train and care for your horse. I did some sporting on a pony as a child and the jumping was bringing back good memories.
With your busy schedule, how do you manage to fit in your jump training? Juggling training my horses and race riding works out well. With the help of Michelle, who has her own horse called Sherzando, I work Fireball and Eli early in the morning before I go to the races. Summer-time is easy because the races start later in the day giving me more time and the warmer weather helping to keep my weight down. During winter, time is more precious and the time spent riding gets shorter.
Do you have a Coach? Dave Cameron is my jumping coach, however, unfortunately, I do struggle finding time for lessons because of racing. While I believe this is my weak point, Dave always manages to help by giving me plenty of feedback to think about between lessons.
What do you find the biggest challenge of jumping compared to racing? The biggest challenge for me from race riding to jumping has been getting that extra stride in before a jump as I tend to ride very forward. Leg aids (a way of communication with the horse) were new to me as race riding requires no leg aids with your knees practically on your chest. Also, in a race if you want to go left or right you pull the reigns in that direction, the whole outside rein world became new to me in jumping.
Above: Jeff Penza and Fireball at the 2020 Stonewall Championships
Some days you have jumped during the day and raced at night. How do you make this schedule work? A lot of time jumping competitions or training days clash with race days and I have to juggle both. If necessary, I compromise by entering the early classes. I have competed at Jumping competitions and then rode in the races at Newcastle or other tracks on the same day multiple times. Once I competed in an early class at the Riders Series then drove four hours to ride at Moruya races. Recently, I competed at the Waratah Showjumping at SIEC, then rode at Canterbury races that night. Sometimes Michelle comes to a jumping competition in a separate car then takes my horse or horses home while I continue straight on to the races to save time.
You and Fireball make a great team. Could you have imagined after winning races with him, that you would now be winning jumping classes together? My main horse is Fireball who raced under that name and I rode for two wins. As a Jockey I get to ride hundreds of different horses and get a feel for them cantering to the starting barriers. I was always drawn to Fireball for his athleticism, size and movement. Later in his racing career I used to ask his trainer, Jan Bowen, if I could have Fireball when he retired. Eventually Jan told me Fireball was being retired from racing and I could have him so I went and picked him up from Muswellbrook. Whenever I ride for Jan she always ask how Fireball is doing. Fireball and I qualified for the Jump-Off TV series in November 2019. Michelle drove him to Boneo Park in our float and I flew down on competition day to ride him. Fireball was very green (new) to the competition and unfortunately we had a rail down in the first round. I then flew back home the next morning, which was Melbourne Cup day and travelled straight to the Kembla Grange races. Our best result so far was equal first place in the 1.20m Open class at Waratah Showjumping in November 2020.
Tell us about your other competition horse Eli Lamar? Eli is my second horse although I had him before Fireball. I rode Eli, race name Stromaise in his last race in late 2015 when he was struggling for form. After the race his trainer told me he was planning to retire the horse so I offered to give him a home. Eli has been very valuable to me as I have made plenty of errors on him but he is very forgiving, allowing me to progress quicker. We have come a long way and he is a lot of fun to ride in competitions. Eli won the 0.90m Open the same day as Fireball’s win at Waratah. At the recent Sydney Show Jumping Summer Championships I entered Eli into four classes winning three of them, the TSHA (Thoroughbred Sporting Horse Association) 0.90m, the TSHA 1.10m and the Open 1.00m. The TSHA has been great for our horses and I.
Above: Jeff Penza and Fireball at the 2020 Stonewall Championships
Does all your jockey experience help with speed? Do you think you have an advantage in jump-offs? Some jockey skills do play a part in jumping. When riding in a race, most of the time you are following another horse and you have to be very aware of your horses front hoofs and the clearance you have. I think this helps with speed and confidence in jumping.
Fellow jockey Kathy O’Hara also competes at Jumping. Do you two have any special rivalry? Kathy has helped me learn the ropes of jumping and is always there to answer my questions. We often compete against each other but there is no special rivalry, however, there isn’t a jockey I have met who isn’t ultra-competitive on a horse.
What aspects of a racehorse attract you to them as a potentially good jumper? When looking out for a future jumper I like a thoroughbred with decent size and build. An adjustable canter and reasonable mouth will only make life easier.
Australian Jumping would like to thank Jeff for his time and to wish him every success in the future in both of his equine endeavours!