If you are of the horsey set, you doubtless already knew of the Marchioness of Moratalla, who died in Biarritz in November of 2017. With an estate unofficially estimated to be worth $175 million, she didn’t have the same galactic fortune as racer breeders such as Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed (whose Godolphin dominates the sport) or Chanel’s Wertheimer brothers, but her specimens are renowned, with more than 5,000 wins credited to her stable, housed at the Domaine de Coumères.
Establishing herself in the equestrian world in the early 1980s, María de la Soledad Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, known to her friends as Sol, was of Spanish-aristocratic and wealthy-English heritage, but chose France for her base of operations. You couldn’t blame her for wanting to make a home for herself in the velvety hills of the French Basque Country, where her secluded Domaine de Coumères could be found, not too far from the home region of the trainer Maurice Labrouche, her first husband, who gave the marchioness her first horse. But she and her estate managers just didn’t love the taxes. It was so much more advantageous to stay domiciled in Switzerland, where her mother had already set up the family trusts.
If the taxman never came looking around, all would likely have been fine. But the marchioness’s eldest son, Forester Labrouche, was another story. Thanks to his legal vigilance—one could say nonstop haranguing over which country’s laws apply to the marchioness’s estate—the Swiss jig is now up. In June of 2019, the marchioness’s domicile was transferred back to France, and now the legal situation is more maddening and compliqué than ever.
Labrouche has been at war with his adopted brother German de la Cruz for decades. And as the brothers haggle, the taps at Domaine de Coumères were cut off for months. The staff there, which numbers around a dozen, stopped getting paid in March. They complained that the prize-winning horses were starving, which made headlines across France. Forester finally stepped in to pick up part of the tab in July, but the battle wages on as one of Europe’s most prestigious stables dies on the vine. Boys, it’s time to come to the table, any table.
It’s better to be born lucky than to be born rich, they say. While the expression isn’t a universal truth, it might apply to de la Cruz. The marchioness had not had a great run of things as a mother up to that point. She sent both her sons by Labrouche, Forester and Jay, to Switzerland to be raised by her mother, Olga. Jay, who was a talented jockey, suffered a serious accident in 1973 and died from a heroin overdose four years later. In the same year, after her brother, Alfonso, died, his son, Kim, according to Forester, jumped out of a 17th-floor window in New York City while high on LSD. Only de la Cruz, whom she adopted in 1987 from a Colombian orphanage, actually grew up at her side throughout his childhood, clearly one source of the unending conflict between him and his surviving brother.
“I was well loved by my father and grandparents,” Forester told L’Express in 2018. “But not by my mother.” The enmity between the marchioness and her eldest son came to a head when he married the banker Stéphanie Hug, in 1998. Where Labrouche was discreet, Hug was blowsy and grasping. She sought to marry under a community-property regime, which, according to de la Cruz, raised the marchioness’s hackles, and then aggressively pursued a total revamp of the Moratalla finances, having suspected the family’s financial managers of hiding the marchioness’s wealth from Forester and her. (“If her fortune had been better managed, the family would today have over a billion euros,” Stéphanie Labrouche told Sud Ouest in 2017.)
Now a couple with ample energy and will to grind axes, the Labrouches unleashed a fire hose of lawsuits in courtrooms across Switzerland, France, Liechtenstein, and the U.K. They challenged Markus Frey, the son of the marchioness’s original Swiss banker, who had already been embroiled in a tax-evasion scandal in the United States. They challenged de la Cruz. Until very recently, they lost constantly.
“If her fortune had been better managed, the family would today have over a billion euros.”
Needless to say, as the litigious decades wore on, relations between the mother and her eldest deteriorated. By 2012, the marchioness had signed over Swiss power of attorney to her son German and disinherited Forester. Only one problem: the act was stamped in France, not Switzerland, and Forester got it invalidated. In Switzerland, like in many other countries, you can dictate the terms of your own will. In France, it is illegal to disinherit a child. The rigidity of French inheritance laws is why many a costly family château has sat unsold for an eternity: every descendant has to agree, or no deal.
The summer before the marchioness died, the Labrouches, who hadn’t visited her since before the birth of their daughter, in 2004, popped in unannounced. They claimed, as did a friend who testified in court, that the marchioness was healthy and told them on this visit that she didn’t agree with giving de la Cruz power over her fortune. On a follow-up a day later, they said, de la Cruz barred the door.
The rigidity of French inheritance laws is why many a costly family château has sat unsold for eternity: every descendant has to agree, or no deal.
After the marchioness passed, the Labrouches moved on Coumères. They accused de la Cruz and Frey of stealing around $14 million, and de la Cruz of elder abuse and confinement, and raised suspicion of homicide for good measure. An autopsy and inventory were ordered, as courts from Geneva to Bayonne fought over jurisdiction. De la Cruz was found innocent of the Labrouches’ accusations, and there was no finding of foul play in the marchioness’s death.
Last June, when various European courts finally agreed that French laws would rule the fight over the estate, it was good news for the Labrouches, who clearly needed it. Not so much for Coumères and its staff, who got caught up in the interminable French postmortem wrangle for a good five months. They eat horses in the Basque Country. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for Air Mail based in Paris