Months after its racino hopes foundered in the Legislature, Running Aces Harness Park is back with a new plan to expand gambling at the northern Anoka County racetrack.

The park's operators petitioned the Minnesota Racing Commission on Thursday for permission to install electronic blackjack tables in its card room. Unlike the slot machines it had hoped would come if the state had approved the creation of racetrack casinos, Running Aces officials argue that the games would be no different -- in odds or operation -- from traditional blackjack, but would have the flash and dazzle they need to draw in new customers and bump up purse revenue.

"Our quest is to stay relevant and current with our customers," Tracie Wilson, Running Aces' chief financial officer, told the Racing Commission's finance committee Thursday afternoon. "In this day and age, this technology is great. It enhances the wagering experience for those customers and the new customers."

Running Aces pushed ahead with its request even though the state Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement division has already ruled that the devices would be illegal to install at a Minnesota racetrack. In a letter dated Oct. 30, the agency concluded that the ShuffleMaster Table Master TMS 300 blackjack tables the park is looking at are considered electronic gambling devices under current law. As such, it would take an act of the Legislature to rewrite the law and legalize them for use anywhere but a tribal casino.

Running Aces argues that the racing commission, not gaming enforcement, has sole authority to rule on which devices are legal in racetrack card rooms. The committee ruled that it would ask for a legal opinion and leave the issue up to the full racing commission to settle when it meets Nov. 15.

This request revives a debate that seemed to be dead when the Legislature shelved a racino bill, and buried soon afterward when the Mystic Lake tribal casino partnered with the Canterbury Park racetrack in a multimillion-dollar deal that was contingent on Canterbury dropping its long-running campaign to bring racetrack casinos to Minnesota.

At the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, executive director John McCarthy was skeptical that the electronic blackjack request would fare any better than the racino bill.

"Good luck with that," he said flatly. "Look, you can bring up anything you want with the Racing Commission. We expect we're going to hear a lot of requests and promotions from Running Aces. But at the end of the day, the Racing Commission has no more power to give them permission to do this than you or I."

Running Aces argues that adding in the new electronic tables would bring in an extra $150,000 to $400,000 to enhance purses at the track.

But even without them, board member John Derus said the park is thriving. The request to the Racing Commission, he said, is not a back-door effort to restart the racino debate.

"Just because it's electronic doesn't make it racino," Derus said. "The game is still blackjack. ... It's just a fresh approach. We'd still be serving the same food, just presenting it in a different way."

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049