Tom Lee’s Cheltenham Festival tips: Day 3 – Empire Of Dirt can reaffirm his love for this track and Pat Kelly’s charge may spring a surprise


Just two successful favourites across the opening two days, alongside winners at 11/1, 14/1, 16/1, 16/1, 25/1 and 33/1 means it's been pretty slim pickings for the majority of punters in the opening skirmishes at Cheltenham, with the Festival now at the halfway point.

Highlights so far include a stunning five winners for trainer Gordon Elliott, a double in the saddle for ace amateur pilot Jamie Codd - including the miraculous last to first bumper win for Fayonagh, plus an astonishing haul for the Nicky Henderson yard, which includes Altior in the Arkle, a one-two in the Champion Hurdle courtesy of Buveir D'Air and My Tent Or Yours, as well as Might Bite edging out stablemate Whisper in the RSA.



So, is the tide about to turn as the teams emerge from the dressing rooms to kick-off the second half?

Let's hope the rejuvenating effects of a cup of tea, a segment of orange, a wet sponge and the whiff of Deep Heat can work some magic!

Thursday's strongest recommendation comes not in the opening JLT Novices' Chase, but at 2.50pm in the Ryanair Chase, where Empire Of Dirt (3.50) can reaffirm his love of Cheltenham with another victory to add to his handicap triumph achieved here 12 months ago.

Despite an early incident in that race he ran out a ready winner of the Stable Plate in 2016, since when he has thrived for a transfer of trainers, leaving the now retired Colm Murphy to join that man Elliott.

Already the winner of a feature handicap back in November for his new team, he bettered that when finding only major Gold Cup hope Sizing John too good at Leopardstown in the Dublin track's own Gold Cup last time, effortlessly making the transition to Grade 1 company.

Rumour has it his new handler likes him so much he desperately tried to persuade his owners, Michael and Eddie O'Leary of the Gigginstown House Stud, to switch targets to Friday's Cheltenham Gold Cup, but they're standing firm in order to try and win 'their' race (Michael is CEO of Ryanair).

Empire Of Dirt has much in his favour as he tries to make that dream a reality, coming up against a chief market rival, Un De Sceaux, who is much more a pure two-miler.

Back Empire Of Dirt to continue the red-hot form of the Elliott stable.

Elsewhere on Thursday, Top Notch (4.35) can continue the theme of in-form operations, by taking the opening JLT Novices' Chase (1.30pm) for Nicky Henderson.

Four from five over fences, his winning sequence has taken in targets at Warwick, Plumpton, Ascot and Sandown Park, the latest of those coming in a prestigious Grade 1 on a track that tests jumping like few others.

Top Notch has plenty of experience in the bank, plus just like Empire Of Dirt, he's got good Festival from to his name, finding just one too hot to handle in the Triumph Hurdle of 2015.   

Sandwiched in between those two races, a trainer with a tiny fraction of the firepower available to either Elliott or Henderson could be about to have his moment in the spotlight, as Irishman Pat Kelly goes for a second win in the Pertemps Final (2.10pm).

Successful in the prestigious handicap hurdle 12 months ago with Mall Dini, Kelly, who trains from a tiny stable in the village of Craughwell in the far west of Ireland, this time goes to war with Presenting Percy (9.00), a facile winner at Fairyhouse 19 days ago.

The handicapper punished him for that with a huge rise in the weights (16lbs), but he might still be good enough to have a big say – make sure you back him each way.

Lastly, don't be surprised if Southfield Royale (10.00) is a name that crops up plenty where the final race on the card, the Kim Muir Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase (5.30pm), is concerned.

He was sent off favourite for a race at this fixture 12 months, finishing fourth in the four miler.

He now sits slightly lower in the ratings as he approaches a contest which has been a long term target identified by his upwardly mobile trainer, Belfast man Neil Mulholland.

Like Presenting Percy, he will be an each way play.