The 80-200 was the best I could afford. Given what I shoot, the VR wasn't a big deal for me, certainly not $1,000 in difference, for a sport where I shoot 1/640 minimum.
As for the venue, if we factor out the issue I had using the Alien Bees (I'd never shot with strobes before...I'm a speedlight guy...so I forgot that you could synch only 1/250, so most of the later part of the day's images were pretty useless).
Because DOF needs to be no less than around 6, but better 7.1 or 8, that really limits what can be done, even for a D3s, I suspect. I was using my boss' Canon 7D (my camera a) was in the shop and b) sucks at ISO 800 or higher), and even at 6400 ISO, the images weren't that good. Covered horse arenas have VERY high lights...around 50' in this case...and while looks well lit to the human eye, were very dark even at 6400. Since I was shooting strobes, I didn't get a "correct" exposure, so this may not be helpful information at all.
When shooting Roping events, I am in one of two places. In using your oval track analogy, I'm along one of the sides, toward the far end of where the participants enter, with the participants coming toward me from roughly the middle-to-my side of the arena. They may come straight at me, or angle off toward the far side of the arena, at any point during their run...depends on what the cow does.
In team roping, I at the same "far" end, but on the other side of the arena. Thus, participants still enter at the far end from me, but on the far side. They run toward the same end I'm at, but on the other side. When the header (first roper) catches the cow's horns with the rope, the rider makes a left turn toward the center of the arena, toward the side I'm on.
That's when the heeler (second roper) starts his/her attempt to catch the cow's rear legs. That can happen at the turn, or pretty much any point in the arena depending how how the header can lead the cow, etc. In other words, this event can be all over the place, but has a basic pattern it runs...it's just unpredictable as to when the first catch, turn and second catch will be within the arena. Clear? (as mud, right?!!)
Thanks for the info on the sensors...I normally shoot single-point focus using the center point, but I don't know enough about cross-point or using "area" focus modes to know what I don't know.
For the moment, my need/desire to upgrade to a camera that can actually do ISO 6400 is more important than a need for a VR lens (and I've not had good luck with the one VR lens I have...had to send it to Nikon to repair the mechanism).