Today is Cinco de Mayo, one of the holidays I cherish most, albeit an unlikely cause for celebration in the United States. For one thing, it honors an obscure battle between two other countries (Mexico and France). Also, the Mexican victory at Puebla was short-lived: The French captured the city a year later.
So how did it become a day of celebration here? Well, it started among the Mexican American diaspora in North America during the Civil War -- our civil war, not Mexico's -- and was entwined with the great struggle to end slavery.
Feelings were especially passionate on the West Coast where the news from Puebla in 1862 set off fireworks and partying. The victory was hailed from the haciendas of moneyed Hispanic elites in Los Angeles to the Mexican American sections of mining camps in California's Gold Rush country. Latino politicians -- who 12 years earlier had changed their citizenship without changing their addresses when California joined the Union -- hosted impromptu fiestas where they delivered fiery patriotic speeches, some of them in Spanish.
The Golden State was at the heart of it. California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state after an intense political struggle centered in Washington, D.C. This fight continued in California even after statehood was bestowed, essentially pitting pro-slavery whites from the South against an alliance of abolitionist-leaning whites from the East who'd come to Northern California in search of gold and the indigenous Latinos who loathed slavery. As I've written before, the Battle of Puebla became a stand-in for the Battle of Bull Run -- except that in Mexico the forces of liberty had prevailed. Viewed this way, the riddle of why Latinos in the U.S. celebrate a day in Mexican history that isn't much celebrated south of the border is no mystery at all. They were celebrating freedom.
In addition, Cinco de Mayo is a stark refutation to the incongruous concept of "cultural appropriation," which is perhaps the looniest idea ever to emerge from the college campuses of this country. If human history shows anything it's that the melding of ideas, customs, cuisine, music, clothes, technology – and, yes, genes -- between different groups of people is how societies are created. Culture is appropriation, although a more neutral word is "sharing."
May 5 is also a cherished date in American history, at least for me, because Mark McKinnon was born on this day. Regular readers of this note won't be surprised by my affection and respect for this dude. He's got all the qualities you'd want in a friend and, for me, one that is increasingly rare: a stubborn streak of bipartisanship. Not only did he help found No Labels, but while operating as an Austin political consultant, he worked for two illustrious Texas governors, Democrat Ann Richards and Republican George W. Bush. McKinnon still speaks highly of them both. Last weekend, "M-Cat," as Dubya called him, tweeted out Bush's poignant public service announcement about the pandemic, with a succinct intro: "This is how you do it."
Happy Birthday, Mark.
Today is also an anniversary of my own. It was on this date in 1973 that I fell in love with thoroughbred racing.
* * *
So whom shall I blame for my horse racing passion? My father loves the track, so probably I was predisposed. But the deal was sealed on May 5, 1973 in the storied shrine known as Churchill Downs where several figures had a hand in that historic Run for the Roses.
We start with Penny Chenery who won the rights to a horse in a coin flip. I kid you not. Actually, Mrs. Chenery lost the coin toss to famed Kentucky horseman Ogden Phipps, so she had to wait a year for a foal from sire Bold Ruler. The horse Phipps ended up with was a filly who never won a race. Mrs. Chenery's consolation prize was a colt that her stable named Secretariat.
Another player in this drama was a French-Canadian jockey turned Hall of Fame trainer. Once again, the Phipps operation figured in the story. Mrs. Chenery's Meadow Stable in Virginia had a young trainer named Roger Laurin in the summer of 1971. But Roger was hired away by the Phipps family. Before he left, Chenery asked him, "Who will train my horses?"
"My dad will help you out," he replied. Roger's father was Lucien Laurin, forever to be known as Secretariat's trainer.
Let's not forget Secretariat's rider. He was also from Canada, an accomplished 31-year-old jockey who had won the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes aboard the great Riva Ridge. This was the team: Penny Chenery, Lucien Laurin, Ronnie Turcotte, and Secretariat -- "Big Red" -- that in 1973 set the stakes record in the May 5, Kentucky Derby, another record in the May 19 Preakness Stakes, and then shattered the record in the June 9 Belmont while capturing the Triple Crown.
This last race, with its iconic line from race caller Chic Anderson ("Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!") still gives me chills. I'd never seen anything like it. And I was young enough -- still a teenager -- not to know that I never would again.
The coronavirus pandemic has locked down much of the world, including the 2020 Kentucky Derby, which would have been run this past Saturday. The Arkansas Derby was held -- before an empty grandstand at Oaklawn -- but Louisville was bereft of racing altogether.
For those of us saddened by the postponement of this year's Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs and NBC collaborated on a delightfully off-beat endeavor: They put all the Triple Crown winners in history in an animated and simulated race and ran them around the Churchill Downs' oval at the prescribed mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance. So which horse won? Do you really have to ask?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.