Gotta Get Back in Time …
Dinah Kane smiled as she let her eyes take in all of the history and tradition that suddenly felt as if it was crashing down upon her.
Kane’s smile got even wider and more brilliant with every yellowed and frayed picture and kitschy memento she allowed her gaze to focus upon. Moments before, Kane had strolled with a group of friends into Wagner’s Pharmacy, about a Tiger Woods five-iron from the famed Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
The first thing she noticed was the rich, smoky smell of bacon grease emanating from the grill behind the old-fashioned lunch counter and fountain at the front of the store. The second was the sense that she had just stepped through a portal into the past.
“This is magnificent … and so utterly American,” said Kane, who described herself as “60 something” and is in Louisville from England to experience the hoopla and mayhem inherent in the days leading up to America’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby.
“In England, it’s called the DAR-by,” she said with a chuckle.
Since the early 1920s, breakfast at Wagner’s has been a foregone conclusion for horsemen and Thoroughbred racing fans alike, who pack the tiny corner store year-round to sample the home-cooked meals, talk a little racing and revel in a sense of days gone by.
Photos of Derby winners, trainers and celebrities adorn the walls, crying out for attention from those who enter the store for the first or 40th time. Waitresses careen around the tiny room like pinballs as it becomes more and more crowded, hurrying to drop orders off at the grill and refill cups of steaming hot coffee before their customers have time to stop and ask.
As she and her party sat down for a quick breakfast in the shadow of the historic track, Kane began to read the back of the menu that Wagner’s sets out on every table during Derby Week.
“Wagner’s opened in 1922, when Leo Wagner bought Hagen’s Pharmacy on the northeast corner of Fourth Street and Central Avenue, where he had worked since he was 14,” it reads. “Threatened by another newly opened pharmacy on the block, Wagner looked for a market to corner — and found it at Churchill Downs. He let the horsemen buy their cigarettes and other weekly staples on credit and generated a friendship and loyalty that has lasted for three generations.”
In other words, Wagner’s IS Churchill Downs, just as Churchill Downs IS Wagner’s.
“The sense of history in here overwhelms the senses,” said Kane, who admitted she does not follow racing but loves the beauty and majesty of the horses. “This place is wonderful and gives you an immediate sense of why [the Kentucky Derby] is so steeped in tradition.”
“There is no other place to be, especially during Derby Week,” said Lexington resident Daniel Sigal, an acrylic artist who paints buttons depicting racing’s most beloved equine athletes as well as the rainbow-hued silks worn by jockeys to signify the owners of the participants upon which each jockey is seated.
“I have been coming here for years, and it’s amazing how many faces you recognize or people that you run into on a daily basis.”
So why is Wagner’s such an integral part of the Churchill Downs experience? Is it the comfort food served in generous portions for reasonable prices during the breakfast and lunch hours? The atmosphere? The hope that one might bump face-first into a celebrity he or she had seen only on television?
“Are you kidding? It’s the servers; what else would it be?” said Clara Leiby, who has been serving eggs cooked to order and refilling coffee mugs at Wagner’s for seven years.
Leiby said the reaction from neophytes to regulars is always the same once they pass through the doorway.
“There is an atmosphere here that you will not find anywhere else — anywhere,” she said. “Once people come here once, they always come back.”
Pam Pryor, who has worked behind the counter scrambling eggs, browning potatoes and flipping burgers for the past 13 years, said, “People come here to experience the past and the history of the Derby in a setting that is like no other,”
She stood under hand-painted drawings of the restaurant’s staple meals that hang above the grill.
“Whether it’s to get a quick, hot meal or get help picking a Derby horse, the people just keep on coming.”