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Irish whispers suggest Black Hercules is Mullins’ Bumper hotpot

Having won eight of the 21 runnings of this race, including for the last two years, Willie Mullins’ 2014 Cheltenham Champion Bumper contenders will be followed with increasing interest over the next eight weeks.

The Irish – who have only gone home without winning the Bumper at the Festival twice in the past decade – saddle eight of the 11 runners priced up by Coral at this point and will be out in force on the 12th of March in expectation of another triumph.

After last year’s stunning seven-length win under Ruby Walsh by 5/1 2014 Albert Bartlett contender Briar Hill – who was by far the biggest price of Mullins’ three in the race – the bookies are taking no chances with the canny County Carlow handler.

Shaneshill and Black Hercules – who are both owned by software tycoon Graham Wylie’s wife Andrea – are priced up as 8/1 favourite and 12/1 respectively, but noises drifting from across the Irish Sea suggest those odds may be the wrong way round.

The former bolted up by 11 lengths in his last run at Fairyhouse in November, but the second and third-placed horses in that race have taken similar beatings since, including against Dermot Weld’s 14/1 Champion Bumper shout Silver Concorde.

Shaneshill’s only other run this season came earlier that month and although the five-year-old won that race ahead of Joshua Lane, he hardly dominated proceedings, as the first seven past the post were separated by a mere eight lengths.

Mullins is far from guaranteed to saddle both Wylie horses with the Punchestown Festival’s valuable National Hunt Flat version to keep in mind.

The form from Black Hercules’ debut run last April wasn’t franked afterwards by his rivals, but a two and a half length win from Cillian’s Return in his second start in December at Punchestown looks very sound, as the runner-up went on to win a smart race at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day with some ease.

The Mullins camp were thought to be particularly impressed with Black Hercules after that run and how the five-year-old shapes around Gowran Park in his next outing will be of great interest to punters looking to unlock the market in Cheltenham Wednesday’s late race.

England’s woeful Bumper record in recent campaigns hasn’t put David Pipe off saddling big hopes and The Liquidator competed for best of the rest honours behind Briar Hill in 2013 on his way to winning the Punchestown equivalent.

The Pond House trainer’s father Martin readied Liberman to win this race back in 2003 and his progeny looks to have a live challenger to the boys in green this March.

Seven Nation Army sprang a shock when running out the 8/1 winner at Ascot just before Christmas, finishing a neck ahead of Joshua Lane.

That form puts him pretty close to Shaneshill on all known form and the Rock of Gibraltor grey looks the best value at present for a patriotic punt on the Pipe team at 20/1.