06/29/2004 11:00PM

Lovely Rafaela's day to shine

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - From the beginning, Lovely Rafaela has lived the life of the privileged little rich girl. The Hiltons have nothing on her.

She was born and raised on the Diamond A Farm of Gerald Ford, formerly home to the gaudy collection of Thoroughbreds assembled by the late Allen Paulson, when the sumptuous central Kentucky acreage was known as Brookside Farm.

As a daughter of A.P. Indy and the accomplished grass mare Campagnarde, Lovely Rafaela fetched $600,000 as a yearling. She was purchased by the Brazilian horseman Gonzalo Torrealba, the man who bought the rights to fly the Calumet Farm silks.

Lovely Rafaela prepped with Richard Mandella, who brought her slowly through those early lessons meant to last a lifetime. Nothing she did while winning one of her first four starts ever discouraged her trainer.

Then there was a divorce, as sometimes happens to little rich girls, and Lovely Rafaela moved last March from Mandella's Hall of Fame stable to the care of Paulo Lobo, Torrealba's fellow Brazilian.

"Let's just say it was 50-50," Mandella said of the separation. "She's a nice little filly, and I always felt she had every right to get better on the grass going long."

Other horses were involved, and Lobo said the transition went without a hitch.

"It was normal," Lobo said. "Mandella told us everything about the horses. We have to face this kind of thing in our job. It can happen, all the time."

As it turns out, nothing was lost in translation. Lovely Rafaela has continued on the trajectory predicted by Mandella, becoming a stakes winner on the grass over a distance of ground. On Saturday, Lovely Rafaela will have a chance to truly shine when she joins the field for the third running of the $750,000 American Oaks at Hollywood Park.

The Oaks, like its Coaching Club counterpart in New York, is a full-blooded, 1 1/4-mile test of the breed. The Hollywood version is offered on the grass, however, which has opened the event to a flood of international participation, encouraged by an ample promotional budget.

This year, fillies from Ireland, New Zealand, France, and Japan have accepted the challenge. Lovely Rafaela, on the other hand, trains at Hollywood and enters the Oaks off two smart races over the course, including a gutty win in the Honeymoon Handicap on June 5. But as far as Lobo is concerned, it is the Oaks distance that will make the difference for his filly.

"I think she will handle the mile and a quarter easy," Lobo said. "Her dam could run 10 furlongs, and she had a brother named Campero, who was a stallion in Brazil who was very good at getting distances horses, especially on the grass."

Campagnarde hails from Argentina, where she established enough of a reputation to merit a chance in the States. Paulson bought her and Charlie Whittingham trained her to win the 1991 Ramona Handicap at nine furlongs and the 1993 Honey Fox Handicap at 11 furlongs, both at Del Mar. Campagnarde also finished third in the 1992 Yellow Ribbon to Super Staff and Flawlessly, in the days when it ranked as America's toughest 10-furlong turf race for fillies and mares.

The emergence of Lovely Rafaela fits neatly with Lobo's steady rise on the national scene. The second-generation horseman made a lasting impression two years ago with Farda Amiga, winner of the Alabama, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly. This year, Lobo's work with Pico Central has expanded his fan base, especially after their win in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on Memorial Day.

One would think, then, that Lobo could hold onto a jockey. Alas, as of Wednesday morning he was still searching for a rider to replace Victor Espinoza aboard Lovely Rafaela, despite the fact that Espinoza had been aboard for five of her six lifetime starts. Espinoza has agreed to ride the Irish filly Misty Heights, trained by the legendary Dermot Weld.

"He's a great trainer, I know," said an exasperated Lobo. "But he runs here, like, once a year. I really don't understand."

Of course, Lobo really does understand. The paint had barely dried on Weld's victory at Hollywood in the 2002 Matriarch with Dressed to Thrill, when he swooped into L.A. again last July to win the 2003 American Oaks with Dimitrova. Just last Sunday, Weld added another layer to his reputation by winning the Irish Derby with Grey Swallow.

Still, Lobo can be forgiven if he thinks he has a good shot at winning the Oaks. And don't worry - he'll find a rider, even though he has offered the mount to just about every top jock, both East and West.

"They are all busy," he said Wednesday morning, "but I have a name in my pocket."

If Lovely Rafaela runs to Lobo's expectations, that could be a very lucky name.

"She has been doing very well since the Honeymoon Handicap," Lobo said. "She's very kind, like a pet, and very versatile. She can run close, in front, from the back, and she is improving. I think she is going to run a big race."