Wagner’s is Churchill Downs; Churchill Downs is Wagner’s.” That sentiment, or something close to it, is echoed by almost everyone who walks in the joint — both regulars from the old school of horse racing and first-timers there to join the club, if only for a day. It’s a history written all over the walls, which hold a collage of past Derby winners along with famous figures who have graced the pharmacy’s fountain through the years.
What started out as a low-key meeting spot for coffee and conversation among horsemen and racing writers was eventually “discovered” by the mainstream media and now has been written about and videotaped by everyone from the Los Angeles Times to Southern Living to local TV news crews. It’s become another stop for out-of-towners in the whirlwind of activity that is Derby Week, but through it all has retained its unassuming, down-to-earth character.
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. Threatened by the presence of 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.