06/11/2010 12:00AM

Edward VII left mark on and off turf


NEW YORK - When King Edward VII died at the age of 68 on May 6, 1910, England was plunged into mourning for its immensely popular monarch. The man who lent his name to the more socially open-minded Edwardian Era when he assumed the throne in 1901 had been the public face of the Royal Family ever since his mother, Victoria, had withdrawn from the public scene upon the death of her husband Albert in 1861, when Edward was 19. His annual appearances at Royal Ascot reflected his love of horse racing and endeared him to the social set for which attendance at the Royal Meeting was de rigueur.

The great tribe of English aristocrats who flocked to Ascot would have sympathized with Edward's last words. Suffering from bronchitis and near death from a series of heart attacks, he was informed by his son, the soon-to-be George V, that his horse Witch of the Air had just won at Kempton Park. Edward calmly replied, "I am very glad," at which point he lapsed into a coma and died a few hours later.

His passing shocked aristocratic Englishwomen into what might have been the world's first fashion panic attack. With little more than a month until the first day of the four-day Royal Meeting, what was a girl to wear under such circumstances? The gay colors typical of Edwardian Ascots would not do in the fateful spring of 1910. The ladies quickly adapted, however, and all wore black. They were joined by their gentlemen, who changed from conventional gray morning suits into more acceptable black mourning suits.

The Royal Meeting of 1910 thus became known as Black Ascot. This year's meeting, which runs five days from Tuesday through Saturday, marks the 100th anniversary of that event, and it would be a most fashionable and historically informed young lady who dares to wear black in what is normally a sea of feminine pinks, blues, and yellows. She would do no worse than the ladies of Royal Ascot in 1958, whose black-and-white costumes were inspired by the designs for My Fair Lady, whose designer Cecil Beaton got the idea from Black Ascot.

The esteem in which Ascot racegoers held Edward was well founded. Of all the British monarchs, Edward VII is the most successful on the racecourse. He owned three Epsom Derby winners, two as the Prince of Wales. The first, Persimmon in 1896, later triumphed in the classic St. Leger Stakes. Four years later came Diamond Jubilee, a British Triple Crown champion named in honor of his mother's 60th anniversary as Queen. His 1909 winner Minoru is the only Epsom Derby winner ever owned by a sitting monarch.

Persimmon would delight Edward in 1897 when he won the Ascot Gold Cup -- then the centerpiece of the Royal Meeting -- by an imperious eight lengths, a performance that led to a spontaneous ovation lasting at least that many minutes. Persimmon would later sire the great filly Sceptre, who outdid her father by winning not three, but four English classics, both the 1000 and 2000 Guineas, the Oaks, and the St. Leger.

Edward himself was no slouch at stud, siring one king, George V, grandsiring two, the recalcitrant Edward VIII, and George VI, the father of Elizabeth II.

Edward's connection to Royal Ascot also was social -- a word from him could gain you admittance to the extremely exclusive Royal Enclosure -- but not always in the accepted sense. In 1900, a year before he would ascend to the throne, a horse named Merman won the Gold Cup. Ridden by the American "monkey on a stick" Tod Sloan, Merman was owned by one Lady de Bathe, who in an earlier incarnation had been the notorious Lillie Langtry, Edward's actress-mistress circa 1877-1880. So much for Victorian stuffiness.

Edward's legacy at Royal Ascot is firmly enshrined. The Prince of Wales's Stakes, first run in 1862 and which he won in 1903 with Mead, is named for him. The Ascot Derby, the traditional consolation prize for the Epsom Derby, was renamed the King Edward VII Stakes in 1926.

Edward's funeral on May 20, 1910, at Windsor Castle was the last and largest gathering of European royalty in history. Among the mourners were his nephews, German Emperor Wilhelm II and Russian Tsar Nicholas II. Also present was his second cousin, the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne whose assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 sparked World War I.

Some contemporary historians think that had Edward lived, he might have been able to persuade Wilhelm and Nicholas to find a more peaceful means of settling their differences. That is something aristocrats and commoners alike might muse over while entertaining a flute of champagne or a pint of lager at Ascot this week.