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Mick Fitzgerald: Empire of Dirt can clean up on Thursday in a make-or-break day at Cheltenham

We've reached the half-way stage of the Festival and punters need things to start swinging their way as we head into the final two days.

Mick Fitzgerald 1900

The drying ground is having an effect at Cheltenham and Thursday could be a make-or-break day.

JLT Chase, 1.30pm

Ruby Walsh is going to have his hands full with Yorkhill in Thursday’s opener and he carries a health warning for punters.

He’s talented, is the best horse in the race but backing novices at short-prices at the Festival can be the quickest way to the poor house.

It should help Top Notch that there are just eight runners in the race, as he’s not the biggest. However, he was second in the Triumph Hurdle before and he’s capable of running into a place in this.

I’m looking at Noel Meade’s Disko as an alternative. He’s a very good jumper, gets on with it from the front and was a comfortable winner of a Grade One contest at Leopardstown the last time. Disko can dance home if the favourite’s exuberance gets the better of him.

Pertemps Final, H’cap Hurdle, 2.10pm

Presenting Percy got a bit of a weight hike from the UK handicapper for this contest- but I still think he’s got a big chance, especially as the ground is drying up. We saw on Tuesday with Un Temps Pour Tout that even at the top of the handicap, class still shines through.

Further down the weights, Neill Mullholland’s Impulsive Star should give you a run for your money too.

Ryanair Chase, 2.50pm

I’m so glad that Empire of Dirt runs here as he’s the nap of the meeting for me. He was a very impressive winner of the Brown Advisory Plate handicap 12 months ago and won the Troytown Chase very snugly off top weight on debut this year. The form of that race has held up really well and he put in his best performance this season when second to Sizing John in the Grade 1 Irish Gold Cup last month.

Un de Sceaux jumps better when the ground is soft so the drying ground should be a concern for his supporters. Previous winner Uxizandre gave AP McCoy his last Festival winner in 2015 and chased home Un de Sceaux at this track two months ago after nearly two years off. The ‘bounce factor’ is a worry for me though.

Of the others, Henry de Bromhead’s Sub Lieutenant has put in some very good runs this season and will appreciate better going.

He could be value for the places, but Empire of Dirt makes or breaks the week for me.

Gallop over to all the latest betting on PP.com

Stayers Hurdle, 3.30pm

All the great stayers like Big Bucks, Inglis Drever and Barracuda raced lazily, but crucially always did enough to win.

And that’s what sets Unowhatimeanharry apart in this field. His trainer Harry Fry will be delighted that former winner Cole Harden is running as he’ll do all the heavy lifting up front and should set the race up for the favourite’s final swoop.

Former Champion Hurdle winner Jezki comes back into calculations on this better ground and maybe had his ‘bounce’ at Gowran Park when beaten by Tombstone on heavy ground. He has a similar profile to 2013 winner Solwhit, who stepped up from being a top two-mile hurdler to win this stamina test.

He’ll love going the half-pace slower and pouncing late off a fast pace.

Colin Tizzard’s West Approach goes for this instead of Friday’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle. He was an eye-catcher against the two principals in the Cleeve Hurdle when held up to make late headway. Those tactics may prove his best bet as the Tizzards aim for the stars.

Brown Advisory Handicap Chase, 4.10pm

Gordon Elliott’s Diamond King has been the talking horse for this contest since he was entered. He won the Coral Cup last year off a rating of 149 and arrives here just 1lb higher on 150. The market leader has to go close.

The last horse to do the Coral Cup (2005) / Festival Plate (2007) double was Idole First trained by Venetia Williams.

At a more fancy price, she saddles Tango De Juilley who was second to Empire of Dirt in this contest 12 months ago – but hasn’t run since. Connections will hope the plan to target this race pays off today.

Gallop over to all the latest betting on PP.com

Mares Novice Hurdle, 4.50pm

I was very impressed with Airlie Beach at Fairyhouse last December, who is now unbeaten in seven races. She hasn’t run since December but that was to avoid bad winter ground as she’s better on a decent surface.

I’d have her over stablemate Let’s Dance, despite Ruby Walsh opting to ride Rich Ricci’s mare. She’s chasing a €50k bounty for the yard after winning the Grade 2 ‘Bonus’ race at Leopardstown in January. There’s no prizes for guessing who the stable staff will be cheering home.

Kim Muir Challenge Cup, 5.30pm

This looks like a race that will be dominated by the Irish runners. Last year’s Pertemps Final winner Mall Dini will do for me here. While he hasn’t won any of his five chases yet – he’s not been out of the first three either and looks primed for a big run.

Gordon Elliott’s Squouateur may be one of the hardest horses in training to spell correctly, but he’s very talented on the track. Top amatuer Jamie Codd has been booked and JP McManus’s runner has been well touted since the entries were made.

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What do you think?