Bernie Williams was invited to play his guitar for the VIPs at Belmont Park on Saturday to give the race more of a New York theme, and sure enough, there was a line of colorfully dressed folks by the stage looking for his photo and an autograph.
But if Williams has his way, before long, people in New York -- and everywhere else, for that matter -- will know him as much for his music as for what he did while roaming centerfield for the Yankees.
Speaking between sets in the Champagne room at Belmont, Williams said he hasn't been paying too much attention to what's happening with his former team this season. That part of his life is in the past, and he is busy focusing on reinventing himself as a respected musician.
Just how serious is Williams? The 45-year-old decided to go back to school last year, taking classes at Manhattan School of Music to pursue a degree in jazz performance.
"It doesn't really matter there what I did in baseball,'' he said. "The question is, can you play?''
Williams, a Yankee from 1991-2006, said the administrators awarded him enough credits to enter as a sophomore, so now he has about two more years to go. But he's certainly not wishing it away.
Learning alongside talented students not even half his age has been an invigorating and motivating experience.
"They're like those kids that have been practicing since they were 5 years old, seven hours a day, and now they're 17 and still just as focused,'' he said. "I thought I knew how to play guitar until I went to this school. It's been an eye-opening experience.
"There have been a few people who have recognized me for what I used to do, being a Yankee and all that stuff. But most of the student body probably wasn't even born when I was playing. So it's kind of like you have to earn their respect.''
Williams likened his current challenge in music to when he came over from Puerto Rico and was a Yankees minor-leaguer trying to make a name for himself in the late 1980s.
And he realizes that his recognizable name and baseball past continue to open doors for him, such as Saturday at Belmont, and he doesn't mind taking advantage to get some more practice in.
"It's giving me an opportunity to reinvent myself,'' he said, "and do something I really love.''
This was his first trip to Belmont, and he believes it was his first time at a horse race since his early days in Puerto Rico. But he enjoyed the scene, noting the "colorful'' and "festive'' attire.
Williams also liked the idea of being on hand as California Chrome made his attempt at history in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
Speaking of history, the Yankees have said they plan to honor his time in pinstripes sometime next season, just as they're doing this summer by giving Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill plaques in Monument Park.
"Obviously, it will be a great honor,'' he said. "The fact they have been thinking about me to do that, it's great.''