As theÂ Kentucky DerbyÂ has been run for nearly 150 years, itâ€™s easy to imagine how the city that hosts it might have engendered a sense of history and tradition surrounding it. The event forms the limestone beneath the earth here and permeates the air with a sense of anticipation that never really goes away.
For nearly 100 years, Wagnerâ€™s â€“ formerly Wagnerâ€™s Pharmacy â€“has served as a repository for Derby memories and a supplier of both good food and equine needs alike.
The current owner, Lee Wagner III, simply known as Lee, recalls that it was his grandfather who set things in motion: â€œWagnerâ€™s was founded by my grandfather. It was Hagenâ€™s Pharmacy at the time, and he started working there as a delivery boy. He kept progressing and fell in love with medicine.â€ Mr. Hagen passed away in 1921, and the Wagner patriarch continued to work for the deceased ownerâ€™s widow. The story goes that if Leeâ€™s grandfather, Leo Wagner Sr., could borrow enough for a $1,500 down payment, Mrs. Hagen would carry him for the other $3,500 at six percent interest. â€œWhen the time was right, he took a loan from my great-great aunt to buy Wagnerâ€™s from Mrs. Hagen,â€ informs Lee.
The newly minted Wagnerâ€™s Pharmacy â€“ purchased inauspiciously on a Friday the 13th â€“ started off with coffee and a couple of chairs and allegedly took in $37 on its first day in 1922. Initially, Wagner let the horsemen buy their cigarettes and other weekly staples on credit and nurtured the already well-established pharmacy business. This arrangement blossomed into breakfast and lunch for dedicated jockeys, trainers and horsemen who had heard of the little place on the corner of Fourth and Central. It wasnâ€™t long before things were booming. â€œWhat brought a lot of the horsemen here was that they could get something to eat as well as get the stable goods that they wanted,â€ asserts Lee.
Things were so good, in fact, that in 1965, Wagner decided to buy Becker & Durski, a nearby fine supplier of turf goods and tack products such as custom jockey silks, saddle towels and other accessories. Becker & Durski became operational in 1875, so their reputation had already been preceding itself for nearly 100 years at the time of its purchase by Wagner. According to Lee, at last count, roughly 30 Derby winners have worn Becker & Durski silks. â€œHe had a real love affair with the horsemen,â€ reminisces Lee. â€œWhatever they needed, he wanted to make sure we had or were able to get. He wanted them to have a place they could go and get everything they need for their horses as well as a good bite to eat. We also cash a lot of their employeeâ€™s checks. We just try to be part of the family.â€
Lee also recalls that it was his father â€“ a University of Kentucky School of Pharmacy graduate â€“ who bolstered the already strong foundation at the pharmacy side of Wagnerâ€™s. Even though the restaurant became so successful that it overtook the pharmacy, necessitating its sale to Walgreens in 2014, it was Leeâ€™s fatherâ€™s advances that still make a name for the place today. To this day, Wagnerâ€™s Racehorse Liniment remains highly sought after and can be purchased on the Wagnerâ€™s website. Additionally, Lee says that they still have a vitamin supplement, a medicated poultice and other veterinary/equine aids available.
After the widening of Central Avenue in 1998, Wagnerâ€™s moved to its current location, a little further down Fourth Street. â€œMy father didnâ€™t want to fight it,â€ asserts Lee. â€œIt was going to be good for Churchill and the University, and Churchill had always been so good to us.â€ Lee worked as a delivery boy like his grandfather in high school and graduated to helping with other things around the store until his late 20s. The move was somewhere in the middle of this period, so he is the Wagner with the unique position of having a foot in the past and the future. Eventually, Lee left to make his own story in the world of orthopedic sales, but it wasnâ€™t long before the Wagner legacy and mantle of responsibility began to call his name again.
â€œI came back at the end of 2013,â€ says Lee. â€œMy family asked me to. My sister was wanting to not be here as often as she was. Iâ€™m glad I did though. I had missed it. I still get the old-timers, and they still call me Little Lee. Iâ€™m almost 40 years old, and Iâ€™m still Little Lee!â€ he adds with a laugh.
And Wagnerâ€™s has flourished since his return. In the time of his grandfather, horsemen such as Ham and Jack Keene, Pete Coyne and Kay Spence were in common attendance. The names may have changed, but the level of renown has not. â€œDallas Stewart has a Derby horse every year, and he always sticks his head in. Bob Baffert will pop in on occasion. Heâ€™s mostly in California, but he comes in when heâ€™s in town. Steve Asmussen was just in last week,â€ says Lee. Even David Levitch, current player for UofLâ€™s menâ€™s basketball team, is a regular. â€œThe cheeseburger, mac and cheese and breakfast are the best things on the menu. The people and the food keep me coming back,â€ Levitch claims, and he would know as he grabs some grub at Wagnerâ€™s three or four times a week.
Despite these assurances of continued success, Lee doesnâ€™t want to rest on his laurels, cashing in on the hard work of his father and grandfather. He has bold plans for the future: â€œThe future is going to be growing the restaurant business, the equine products line, the gift and souvenir shop. It will all continue to grow. We also have a lot of old memorabilia that you canâ€™t find anywhere else.â€ Lee even wants to go back to serving the jockeys at Churchill Downs like theyâ€™ve done in the past as well as pick up some other small catering ventures. Heâ€™s just waiting on the right person.
One such person might just be UofL student Savannah Rines, Wagnerâ€™s newest employee of only six months. â€ŸI was driving past Wagnerâ€™s on my way to school, and there was a â€˜Now Hiringâ€™ sign in the window. Everyone who works here is like 50 or older, so they were like, â€˜You want to work here?â€™ And I said, â€˜Yeah, actually.â€™ My dad comes in here, my grandma comes in here and the food is good,â€ she recalls saying matter-of-factly.
Rines fit right in with the rest of equally hard-working and dedicated staff at Wagnerâ€™s, and with Lee, sheâ€™s teamed up to get the store in tip-top shape for their busiest time and has increased their presence on Facebook and other social media outlets. â€œFor being in college and being a student, she does a good job. She works hard. This time of year, we go late. Itâ€™s anywhere from 9, 10 in the morning to midnight when youâ€™re getting ready for the Derby. She helped with our gift shop. Everybody pitched in, but she helped with the design of it,â€ says Lee.
Rines certainly brings in a refreshing energy to the place, and her unabashed affection for the staff and establishment itself is infectious. â€œI want to open Wagnerâ€™s down on the beach. I want to make it that far. It know it sounds crazy. I just want that sense of home, that Wagnerâ€™s feel, to be everywhere,â€ she says. â€œI came to Wagnerâ€™s a few times when I was younger to eat breakfast. I never noticed its value until I started working here. I learned about myself too. How much I can do. How much I want to do for a place. How much of a hard worker I am. The connections I can make with a place. How cool older people are. The stories they can tell you and not just their wisdom.â€
Wagnerâ€™s has been operating for three generations now, and it shows no signs of diminishing returns. Lee plans to fill the joint with all the charm and hospitality he can muster, and on Derby day, theyâ€™ll be open from 6 a.m. to whenever the crowd dies down. Running a family-owned business, especially one that has been open for so long, is back-breaking work, but Lee knows exactly where his bread is buttered: â€œItâ€™s seven days a week. Itâ€™s constant, but thereâ€™s something nice about that kind of business that makes it worth it. We have so many good customers, so weâ€™re lucky. We really are.â€ VT
Photos by ZACHARY ERWIN || Lighting Assistance by GABRIELLE COLTON