01/03/2007 12:00AM

Naughty Rafaela looks to rebound

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When you finish up the track at even-money, you better have an excuse. On Friday at Santa Anita, bettors will decide if trainer Bobby Frankel's excuse for Naughty Rafaela is legitimate.

A Group 1 winner in Brazil and a troubled third in her U.S. debut Oct 12 at Santa Anita, Naughty Rafaela was even-money in a minor stakes Nov. 11 at Hollywood Park. Empty turning for home, she finished fifth of six.

"She was disappointing, but she was uncomfortable and maybe I brought her back too soon," Frankel said.

If the "bounce" excuse is valid, then Naughty Rafaela should win the seventh-race feature Friday, a 1 1/8-mile turf race for fillies and mares, nonwinners of two races other-than/optional $62,500 claimer.

"She'll probably be the favorite," Frankel said about Naughty Rafaela, adding "she has had more time now."

If Naughty Rafaela runs back to her first start in North America, her six rivals will be running for second.

The field includes Big Promise, runner-up last out at the same class level; La Mottie, runner-up in her most recent start against 3-year-old fillies in a restricted stakes; front-runner Categorize; and longshots I Can See, Missatacama, and Croesus.

Based on her Group 1 form in Brazil, and her U.S. debut, Naughty Rafaela is a logical choice. She won 2 of 5 starts in South America, including a Group 1, and should have won her U.S. debut under the same conditions she faces Friday

Racing at 1 1/8 miles against nonwinners twice other-than rivals, Naughty Rafaela was sawed off and steadied on the far turn, regained momentum, and then found herself in tight quarters again in deep stretch. She finished with run and lost by only 1 1/2 lengths.

Corey Nakatani has ridden Naughty Rafaela twice, and is back on again Friday. Barring the unforeseen, Naughty Rafaela should win the $59,000 allowance at relatively low odds. She is proven at the level, the fastest horse in the race on recent figures, and training well.

Big Promise had a tough trip last out. She lost position early, was steadied going into the backstretch, then rallied for second. She has more tactical speed than she showed in that race, and could get first run when pacesetter Categorize fades.

La Mottie finished a creditable second against 3-year-old fillies her last start. She was ridden last time by Nakatani; Victor Espinoza rides Friday.