05/25/2004 12:00AM

Dixieland Heater finds right level

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - Dixieland Heater was a Cinderella story in the making last fall.

He won 4 of 5 starts as a 2-year-old last year and was claimed three times while moving up the ladder, eventually into graded stakes.

Thursday, he drops back into the claiming ranks again as he seeks his first victory as a 3-year-old in a $25,000 claimer at six furlongs that serves as the Bay Meadows feature.

Dixieland Heater, a $10,000 yearling purchase in Washington, was claimed from his winning debut for $20,000 on Sept. 1. Trainer Art Sherman took him from Dennis Ward.

Sherman tried him in the San Mateo Stakes in his second start. Dixieland Heater ran evenly, fading to fifth after being brushed in the stretch.

Sherman lost him to Dennis Patterson for $25,000 from a winning race on Oct. 29, and Patterson lost him to Jerry Hollendorfer for $40,000 from a win in his next start.

When Dixieland Heater won an allowance race in his first start for Hollendorfer, northern California's leading trainer entered him in the Grade 3 Golden Gate Derby. Dixieland Heater set a pressured pace in his first try around two turns and gave way in the lane in a decent try.

Hollendorfer brought him back in the Golden State Mile, but Dixieland Heater came up empty that day and ran last.

Dixieland Heater was fourth sprinting before getting a two-month break, then was fourth sprinting again in a $50,000 optional claimer in his last start. Dixieland Heater pressed an honest pace while four wide before fading last time but should be ready to win now.

Turnberry Condo, who drew the rail, is the one to catch. He was on the lead last time despite stumbling at the start, and paid the price for his early exertion.

Swen, who draws the outside post 8, also has speed and shows a series of quick drills during a six-week freshener.

With Turnberry Condo and Swen in the field, Dixieland Heater should get a stalking trip. Xtra Ace, Royal Robey, and Something Fierce also look to be in the second flight with Dixieland Heater.

Xtra Ace drops back into a claimer from the starter allowance ranks, while Royal Robey returns to main-track sprints after being a pace factor and holding on well in a pair of turf routes.