01/08/2004 12:00AM

Skipaslew proven at distance

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ALBANY, Calif. - Five runners looking to improve their standing in the hierarchy of 3-year-olds take their first test of the yearin Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Golden Gate Derby at Golden Gate Fields.

Skipaslew, the probable favorite, just won the Gold Rush Stakes here and earlier won the Gateway to Glory at Fairplex. He is the lone entrant to have won or even run at Saturday's 1 1/16-mile distance.

Gwaihir, who won a $132,000 restricted stakes in France last summer and finished third in the Hill Rise at Santa Anita in his U.S. debut, could be the one to beat in his first race on dirt.

Stakes-placed O.K. Mikie, Dixieland Heater, and Bensquito, who scratched out of a Friday allowance race, round out the field. Corvallis Dee did not enter as expected because of a bruised foot.

Gwaihir's trainer, Craig Lewis, will make a final decision about running after he inspects the track Saturday morning.

"There are so many lucrative races on the dirt for 3-year-olds, we want to see if he handles it," Lewis said. "He's trained well over it, but there's a difference between training and racing."

Lewis wants Gwaihir to run on a dry surface so that he can get a good read on whether the Irish-bred colt can handle dirt.

"He was a very talented horse in France and raced against high-level competition," Lewis said.

"He broke a little tardy in his first race here, but we hope he's acclimated to our starts now."

Dixieland Heater, who has won 4 of 5 starts and has been claimed three times, could have a pace advantage.

Trying two turns for the first time, Dixieland Heater is likely to have the lead early, although Gwaihir, who showed speed in Europe and was second early in the Hill Rise, will likely pressure him.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer claimed Dixieland Heater for $40,000 out of a Nov. 23 victory. "He hasn't been stretched out yet, but he has a chance to do well here," Hollendorfer said. "He's handled a wet track before. I think he's already prepared to go two turns. He gallops 1 1/2 miles a day."

Between his two stakes victories, Skipaslew was third in the Bay Meadows Juvenile after stumbling at the start. He should be third early in Saturday's race.

Bensquito and O.K. Mikie both have shown an ability to finish well. Miguel Perez, who has ridden both in each career start, will ride Bensquito.

O.K. Mike's trainer, Jerry McArthur, said he wants the gelding a bit closer in the early going than he has been.