07/14/2004 11:00PM

Maiden claimer to Oaks

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Moments after Sandra Slivka put in a claim for a 2-year-old maiden filly at Calder Race Course last December, she feared she might have made a huge mistake.

The filly, a first-time starter named Hopelessly Devoted whom Slivka had been watching breeze during training hours, looked simply terrible in the paddock.

"At Calder you have to drop the claim even before the horses enter the paddock, so I didn't have a chance to see her" before the race, Slivka said. "She came over and she was very rank. In the paddock, they could not get her saddled and they had to bring a pony in. She was running over everyone. Once they got her saddled, she broke away from the post parade."

As might have been expected, the jittery filly ran poorly that day. But seven months later, Slivka has no regrets about dropping the slip in the claim box. In fact, it might have been the best $25,000 Slivka ever spent on a horse.

Hopelessly Devoted, who needed six tries to win her maiden while running for a claiming price in Florida, has made such huge strides that she is a contender in Saturday's $500,000 Delaware Oaks. The Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies at Delaware Park is the biggest event of Slivka's 16-year career as a trainer.

Slivka, 41, said Hopelessly Devoted dramatically improved once she was tried around two turns in her fourth career start.

"Once we stretched her out, that really helped her," Slivka said. "Maturity was her big thing. She was very high-strung, and she still is to a certain point, but she has matured immensely. She has gotten very classy over the last couple of months."

Since coming to Delaware, Hopelessly Devoted has won a first-level allowance race, closed strongly to just miss in the Go for Wand, and decisively beat a group that included three-time stakes winner Richetta, an Oaks entrant, in last month's Susan's Girl Breeders' Cup.

Her last two Beyer Speed Figures of 92 and 91 compare well with the 87 that probable favorite Yearly Report received for winning the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan in her last start and the 94 that New York shipper Bending Strings was given for her win in the Grade 2 Nassau County, a seven-furlong race at Belmont, in May.

Jerry Bailey is 2 for 2 in graded stakes aboard Yearly Report, and he will be in from New York to ride the 122-pound highweight.

Bending Strings has been racing shorter distances and finished last of six in her lone previous try at 1 1/16 miles.