For someone that has only been training racehorses for six years, and the majority of that time being restricted to the remote north-west circuit of Western Australia, Rob Gulberti has achieved a fair amount.
A Broome Cup, a Broome Sprint and an enviable overall winning strike rate of 18 per cent previously headed his honour roll, however, those achievements now play second fiddle after he became the first WA-based trainer to win the $200,000 Darwin Cup earlier this month.
Gulberti has been able to rejuvenate veteran nine-year-old and former Group 1-winner, Ihstahymn, to win all three of the popular grey’s starts in his care, culminating in the historic Darwin feature.
The youngest of four siblings, Gulberti, 49, originally hails from Geraldton and was bitten by the racing bug through his trainer-father, Gary.
“My pop had horses, he wasn’t actually a trainer but he had quite a few horses and had some fun,” Gulberti said.
“Dad followed on from that and trained there for quite a while in Geraldton, then he got itchy feet to train in the city.
“He ran second and third in a few Perth Cups and had a lot of city winners, but nothing that was really dominant.”
Gulberti completed an electrical apprenticeship after his schooling and spent his following years working in a variety of jobs, whilst also spending time travelling throughout his 20s.
After settling back down in his home state, a relationship breakdown soon led him to the feeling of needing a change and he decided to explore new opportunities.
Enter Broome time.
“I had to have a clean start, so I followed Dad up to Broome with the horses one dry season and then saw an opportunity to start up a small electrical business, so I thought I’d give it a go,” Gulberti said.
“I packed everything up and moved up here and I’ve never really looked back, I suppose.
“The business took a while to establish itself, but it’s ended up being a very good business for a long time.
“We do a lot of renewable energy and solar systems on cattle stations et cetera and I do a lot of design work and liaise with clients and suppliers and that sort of thing.”
A decade into his new business venture, life on the pearl coast seemed bliss for Gulberti and his now-wife, Renee, however, their world was momentarily halted when the first of their three children encountered heart issues.
The scare resulted in Gulberti selling 50 per cent of his company to allow him to follow his father’s footsteps into training racehorses and, in turn, have more time with his family.
“Two boys that have worked for me for a long time own the other half of the business and between the three of us, we run it,” he said.
“A lot of it I can do remotely.
“Ella was only three months old when she had open-heart surgery, so that changed things a bit for us and that’s when I started wanting to go training.
“We started to focus a bit more energy on the kids and the horses, rather than all work.
“Ella was actually champion girl at her athletics carnival today, so it puts a bit of tear in your eye to see how she’s got through it all.”
Gulberti keeps a select team of up to 12 horses each Broome racing season and, with almost 45 per cent of his runners having finished in the first three placings in his career to date, he is rapidly earning the reputation of an astute country horseman.
In a similar story to Ihtsahymn, Gulberti’s first major success was reinvigorating former Bob Peters-owned-and-bred galloper, Desert Glow, to return to the gelding’s best form before taking out the $100,000 Broome Cup in 2015.
However, it was another cast-off purchase of Gulberti’s which would go on to attract a huge fanbase in the years to come.
Roger the Roman, a modest $15,000 purchase from the metropolitan stable of David Harrison, has captured the attention of WA racing followers since kicking off his journey with Gulberti as a six-year-old in 2017.
The Holy Roman Emperor gelding won all five of his starts in Broome that season, including the $50,000 Broome Sprint carrying the top weight of 61 kilograms, and has since ran placings in the $120,000 Listed Hannans Handicap at Kalgoorlie on two occasions, as well as the $120,000 Listed Pinjarra Classic and $130,000 Palmerston Sprint at Darwin.
“Roger had to carry a fair bit of weight for a little horse in the Broome Sprint, but he won it and it was a real buzz,” Gulberti said.
“Pound-for-pound he’s the best horse that I’ve ever trained.
“For a cheap little bush horse, he’s been a ripper.”
Asked what a typical off-season period looks like for him, a clearly-passionate Gulberti’s drive to gain more knowledge from his more experienced counterparts is obvious.
“We spend about four months away from Broome at this stage, school permitting and the rest of it,” Gulberti said.
“Immediately after Broome season, for the last five or six years, I’ve been going to Carnarvon.
“It’s really only been a learning curve, because Peter Daly is a good friend of the family and the first year I went there, I went for three weeks and learned a lot off him.
“He’s probably one of the best horsemen you’d come across and he’s had a lot of success in the past.”
Gulberti says his biggest influence in racing has been close friend and WA’s leading trainer, Adam Durrant, whom he met through his stable jockey, Peter Hall, a number of years ago.
Hall is married to Gulberti’s cousin, Lisa, and the pair have won a swag of races together in recent years, including the 2015 Broome Cup and 2019 Darwin Cup.
“Pete used to work for Dad years ago and I’ve been good mates with him for a long time,” Gulberti said.
“Adam came up here one year during the season and we met and things went from there.
“He pepped at me for a few years to get involved down there in the summer time and to have a look and give him a hand.
“One year I weakened because I was quite passionate to learn more and to learn and alternative.
“Dad had one method, but I had my own ideas on other methods and things just progressed from there.
“I’ve been at Adam’s farm for probably seven years now.”
Fast forward to early 2019 and Ihtsahymn, a former WA champion three-year-old and 2013 Group 1 Kingston Town Classic winner for Hall of Fame trainer, Fred Kersley, had ran what many thought was his last race.
The Ihtiram eight-year-old had finished more than 20 lengths from Star Exhibit in the $500,000 Group 2 Perth Cup, beating only one of his 15 rivals home.
Connections had all but decided to retire the $1.32 million stake earner, however, what followed over the next eight months has been nothing short of marvellous.
“I approached the owners about taking the horse on because he was to be retired,” Gulberti said.
“I spoke to Reg Webb, Ihtsahymn’s managing owner, and Fred rang me up a couple of days after and gave us his blessing.
“Fred still has a small share in him and his gut feel was that the horse’s batteries were flat before the Perth Cup and that we were a chance to rejuvenate him.
“He was correct.”
Following a spell, Ihstahymn was transferred to Gulberti’s care and commenced a long and slow build-up ahead of a campaign targeting the annual Darwin Cup.
Gulberti had initially planned on racing him first-up in the $50,000 Metric Mile at Darwin on July 27, however, he later decided to give the gelding one start in Broome before making the trip across the border.
The striking grey lined up a 1400 metre 70+ event at Broome on July 6 and, despite carrying an inconceivable impost of 66 kilograms and initially settling at the tail of his seven-horse field in running, he defied all odds to finish powerfully and win, setting tongues wagging nation-wide in the process.
“I’d planned to have him in a 1400 metre jump-out prior to the races that same day, but we just thought that we really needed to know where he was at,” Gulberti said.
“He’d had a 1000 metre jump-out with Roger two weeks before, so rather than giving him two jump-outs I thought we’d use a race start.
“We thought that he’d need the run and they’d be a bit sharp for him, but he had different ideas.”
A fortnight later Gulberti set off to Darwin, an 1,875-kilometre drive, with Ihtsahymn and Roger The Roman in tow.
After being assigned the 60-kilogram topweight for the $50,000 Metric Mile, Ihstahymn started at generous odds of $7 and again came from a seemingly-impossible position to snatch victory.
The gelding would become a nine-year-old just four days later and, after enjoying a faultless preparation to that point, he sent a huge scare through the Gulberti camp on the morning of his grand final; the $200,000 Darwin Cup.
“From the time I got the horse in February, right through to five hours before the Darwin Cup, everything that had just gone really, really well,” Gulberti said.
“But a helicopter went above the stables quite low on the morning of the race and the horse just about jumped out of his yard.
“He got cast and lunged forward and smashed his head against the mesh.
“We weren’t there but luckily the on-course Integrity Department were floating around and (Veterinarian) Judith Medd saw it all on video because there was video surveillance around all of the visitors’ stables.
“Luckily she saw the whole lot and alerted us and we got there as soon as possible.”
Fortunately, Ihstahymn had only sustained superficial facial injuries in the incident and was passed fit to race, where he was again assigned the 60.5-kilogram topweight.
Starting on the second life of betting at $4.40, the cult figure was given a peach of a ride by Peter Hall before hitting the front at the top of the straight and romping away to land another feature race win in a simply exquisite moment for connections and the WA racing fraternity alike.
“I get a kick out of that with the older horses,” Gulberti said.
“Having the opportunity to train a horse and have someone like Fred Kersley basically come to the Cup to watch it was also a real buzz.
“I sat next to him at dinner that night and just talking to him and seeing how chuffed he was for the horse was a privilege.”
Aside from resurrecting yet another veteran galloper en route to landing a career-best highlight, the Darwin Cup was more than just an achievement for Gulberti.
It provided a much-needed boost for his family during a difficult period.
“It was great because Dad came over to the Darwin Cup for a few days, but my Mum is really sick, she’s got mesothelioma,” he said.
“That was one of the things, too, where I focused all of my energy on the horses because they’re good healing animals.
“I try to focus my energy on something positive rather than something negative and it is getting us through.
“Our family is pretty close.”
Asked what he loves most about racing in Broome, a down-to-earth and grounded Gulberti finishes by saying the intimate nature of country racing can’t be beaten.
“At some stage we’ll move to Perth, but I don’t know when that’ll be,” he said.
“We’re more hands-on with our owners and get to celebrate with them, but in Perth it feels more like a business to me.
“You might get to go out for dinner or something like that, but you don’t get to have the same relationship with most of your owners that you do in Broome.”