LOUISVILLE — A year ago, Esquire named it one of the best places to eat breakfast in America.
No less a chef than Bobby Flay has failed to best its fry-cook Pam Pryor's omelette in a Food Network Throwdown. Right now, a man who has trained Derby and Breeder's Cup contenders is squashed between diners at the counter trying to eat his chili and spaghetti while first-time visitors to this Derby mecca ogle the memorabilia.
Dallas Stewart, the aforementioned horse trainer, says the horsemen come to Wagner's, and not just when it's Derby Week, because the food is good, the track is close, and, honestly, "lunch is ready early." That's 9:30 a.m., after the horsemen have been up since 5 a.m., running horses around Churchill Downs.
He's been coming for years.
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So have a lot of people. This is Wagner's 88th year right across South Fourth from the Downs. It opened in 1922, and moved in 1999, but only 40 yards down, when the city expanded Central Avenue to accommodate the throngs.
Rosie Wiebusch, Scottye Ghent and Gayl Leathers say that "for years and years and years" they have had the tradition of going to the Downs to watch the contenders work out and then have breakfast at Wagner's. "None of it has changed a bit," Ghent says.
No, they do not mind all the oglers — first-timers and wanna-be Wagner's regulars. They have, on this occasion, ordered the bacon, eggs, biscuits, "you have to try the sausage and gravy," and the sliced tomatoes. Leathers bucks tradition to go with the chili.
It is 10:15 in the morning.
Wagner's was never meant to be inspirational to the masses. It was, history tells us, just a pharmacy that catered to the neighborhood it was in. When horsemen needed credit in the 1920s, owner Leo Wagner extended it. When the horsemen needed liniment along with aspirins and bandages, Wagner obliged. You can still find liniment on Wagner's sparsely stocked shelves.
It was famous then with the horsemen before it was famous for being famous.
Pam Pryor, the woman at the grill, is famous on her own. Standing behind that hot stove cracking endless eggs for years and, before that, waiting tables, she was the one who threw together a "jack omelette" while Bobby Flay threw together an omelette "with avocados and goat cheese."
Let's just say that when all was said and done, Pryor's little concoction beat the big-deal New York chef/restaurateur/TV show host and cookbook millionaire all to pieces. "Bobby Flay ate my eggs, and we gave his to other people," recalled Pryor.
Pryor says there is a price for the fame: Menus disappear, and the food better be good.
Bill Gentry of Bardstown did not know about Pryor's omelette expertise. He ordered fried bologna. But he would anyway. That is his tradition.
Tradition is not for nothing when you are talking horses and bologna and Churchill and life on South Fourth Street.
Tradition, this week at least, explains and lives in the crowds here at Wagner's, the eternal homage to horse culture when there was such a thing.
It also lives in the divine ambiance found when the same pictures of horses that adorned walls 80 years ago still hang crooked above diners eating red sliced tomatoes and crisply fried eggs.
It lives in the unequalled delicacy of the smell of fresh biscuits commingling with that of fresh saddle soap. And it lives in this the one place in the world where women in not-yet-outrageous hats still wear finery in the morning and eat with uncommonly hearty appetites while men who wrangle horseflesh for a living gulp food at the counter and everyone is thinking of only one thing.
Which horse gets its picture up on these walls next year?