It’s the Wednesday of Derby week, and the line for Wagner’s breakfast is through the building and nearing the back door. Three days from now, it will be even more packed with some of the biggest names in the thoroughbred racing community. But these fanatics aren’t standing in line for a fancy steak dish served on a silver platter or five-star accommodations. They’re standing in line to be part of a rich Kentucky Derby tradition, and for simple, delicious cooking.
The Sport of Kings is full of billionaire owners and million dollar athletes, but every Derby season, the sport’s biggest names can be found eating no-frills meals off Styrofoam plates at the small pharmacy on the corner of Central Avenue.
Wagner’s wasn’t always the backside breakfast staple. It started when 10-year-old Leo J. Wagner Sr. took a job at Hagan’s pharmacy in 1910. The delivery boy worked his way up through an apprenticeship and then bought the pharmacy from Mr. Hagan’s widow in 1922. It’s been Wagner’s Pharmacy ever since. In the 30’s, Mr. Wagner added a couple of tables and serving coffee. That small setup grew to what is now a necessary annual stop for many horse racing connections and fans.
Lee Wagner oversees his family’s store, and ensures it remains a fixture in the Kentucky Derby scene.
“The true sign of it is the people we see come in year after year,” Wagner said. “And you’ll see some of them come in just for Derby. But they always say “we’ve got to make sure we do our annual stop at Wagner’s.” We’ve met a lot of good friends over the years that just by chance have come in here because they were going to Churchill Downs and they say “everybody says we have to go for breakfast in the morning after the horses work out” and so it’s become kind of a thing.
The walls of Wagner’s are filled with pictures of every Derby winner, as well as memorabilia and signed pictures from races and horses past.
Behind the 18-seat counter, a team of cooks work feverishly to keep up with the ever-growing line of tickets above their heads. A mountain of hashbrown potatoes sizzle on the side of the griddle while eggs, biscuits and gravy and other staples come out in regimented fashion. All receive the same treatment, no frills placement on a Styrofoam plate, stacked on one another, with some butter or jelly packets on top.
These plates fly out to the capacity-full dining room as the servers work to turn tables and put a dent in the line. But no one in line seems to mind the wait, a worthy cost to taste a part of racing tradition.
Wagners Pharmacy is clearly far from a pharmacy. But it’s not just a breakfast haunt either.
When asked to sum up what the Wagner experience is, Wagner said “we do a little bit of everything”. That includes selling Wagner’s racehorse liniment, which was originally developed by Wagner’s father. It was originally made to help horses, but their human counterparts found it helped their arthritis. It’s now also used by some University of Louisville sports medicine experts on Cardinal athletes.
“Over time, it just became a place where horsemen would come to get everything they needed,” Wagner said. “Luckily now it’s three generations later and the horsemen are still coming back and we still have that good bond with them.”
Whether it be for biscuits, liniment or the true Derby experience, Wagners will be filled to the brim this week serving up plates of delicious southern breakfast, and continuing to tell the story of the Kentucky Derby.
“The history is written all over the walls,” Wagner said. “It’s special. I guess I recognize it more and more every year as you see how much it means to everybody that’s involved in racing, as well as the community. And I know how I am, I like things that have been around, that you know the people, and you get a sense of it’s the kind of place where everybody knows your name.”